A rational response to wildfires

  As summer weather breaks in the West and ushers in a cool and moist fall, all of us are breathing a sigh of relief. At the same time we cannot avoid being haunted by the question of whether there is something we ought to be doing to reduce the wildfire threat.

Any rational response to Western wildfires has to begin with the recognition that in extreme weather, characterized by drought, high temperatures, low humidity and high winds, there is nothing we can do to prevent or stop all wildfires. Like hurricanes in the South and tornadoes in the Midwest, fires are a natural part of the landscape we inhabit. But that doesn't mean we can’t reduce their damage.

I'm naïve enough to believe there's consensus around the high-priority things we should be doing to protect people, communities and property. That consensus, however, begins to dissolve when special interest groups try to piggy-back their private interests onto our wildfire response.

Ignoring that perverse effort to exploit other people's hard times, let me outline the responses I think almost everyone supports.

We must begin with the homes where a huge chunk of the firefighting resources are already focused. Those homes have to be made fire resistant. This is a private responsibility in which the public has a direct interest, since it's the public who funds the firefighting and in whose name firefighters are put at risk.

We know how to do this. The question is how to quickly implement the necessary steps. Local building codes and land use plans, local fire departments and insurance companies all have a role to play. If, for instance, insurance companies required regular certification that a home was "firewise," mortgage lenders would automatically pressure homeowners to adapt their property to minimize the threat wildfire poses.

Signaling a positive step in this direction, State Farm announced earlier in the year that customers in wildfire-prone areas of six Western states have two years to remove overgrown brush from around their homes or risk losing coverage.

Regular wildfire maintenance would become part of living in the woods just as regular lawn watering and mowing is a part of living in suburbia. The federal government can help by allowing federal funds to be spent on all forest lands, regardless of ownership.

The next priority is to treat the human-dominated forestlands that immediately surround these homes and our communities. For the most part, the forestlands surrounding our communities have already been roaded and logged. As a result of these activities, coupled with aggression fire suppression over the past 60 years, many of these dry, low elevation forests carry unnaturally high fuel loads. Clearly, we need to begin strategically reducing fuels in these areas so that young trees and brush are removed.

Focusing resources here involves focusing on a small fraction of the Western landscape rather than the astronomical 40 million or 100 million acres some are insisting we must thin. On this much smaller acreage, we could afford to focus exclusively on fuel and fire control, uncompromised by commercial timber-harvest objectives.

We can leave unroaded backcountry alone. Most fires there don’t threaten us, especially if we have made our homes "firewise" and reduced fuels in the forests immediately surrounding our communities. Besides, we cannot afford to treat the entire forested landscape, and these rugged isolated areas would be the most costly to treat. Just as important, we don’t know whether these lands need to be treated or what treatments might be effective.

This set of wildfire priorities leaves the bulk of our forests and grasslands, which are already roaded and strongly impacted by past commercial logging and grazing, open to continued public debate. We have not finished that debate yet, and we cannot and should not try to legislate an end to it.

We also don’t have the scientific knowledge and experience to know what would work on the many different aspects of that complex forest mosaic. And, again, we don’t have the financial resources to engage in ecosystem restoration on all of those lands.

Given our limited resources and the priority of protecting people, homes and communities, we have more than enough to do for the next decade that we can all agree on, while we continue to study the larger, landscape-wide problem of forest health and try to build a consensus for appropriate action.

Let's get on with the priority work we know we have to do.

Thomas Michael Power is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is professor of economics and at the University of Montana in Missoula.