Build in the wrong place and you're on your own

Homeowners in disaster-prone zones need to be self-sufficient

  • Linda M. Hasselstrom


Recent news stories lament the "disaster" of mudslides in Los Angeles caused by heavy rainfall on steep slopes where wildfires have burned off trees and shrubs. "Let the buyer beware," the old saying goes; but somehow, the buyers always say, "We didn't know."

Ignoring logic, developers bulldoze fragile soil, remove rock and create flotillas of houses on hills covered with mesquite and other brush rich in flammable resins, all guaranteed to be set on fire by lightning or arsonists. Every time the slopes burn, every time the houses slide, the rest of the nation holds its breath and watches dramatic videos of frightened people evacuating. Firefighters risk their lives to save people who choose to ignore evacuation orders. The same thing will happen again next time.

Yet none of this uproar, expense and suffering is necessary; it's a consequence of ignoring natural law. The causes are clear and the effects predictable, and they're expected to get much worse as climate change accelerates.

John McPhee's 1989 book, The Control of Nature, summarizes how Los Angeles got into this mess and predicts what will happen next. (The book also describes the likely consequences to New Orleans of the Corps of Engineers' playing with the Atchafalaya River.)

How often have you seen this scenario? The TV camera slow-w-wly pans over a devastated landscape while a solemn voice describes the latest tragedy. The camera focuses on a disheveled man standing in front of wreckage. He's lost his dog and his pickup truck and his family members are distraught. But when that microphone appears, he grins pluckily and says, "We'll rebuild."

"There oughta be a law...." say some of the voters who pay for these foolish choices. In fact, there already is: natural law. And as Ann Zwinger wrote in Credo: Shaped By Wind and Water, "Ignorance is no defense in the court of natural law."

A 2008 study by Stanford University scientists demonstrated that humans have learned how to ignore cause and effect because our culture aids and abets them in doing so. Unfortunately, says Deborah S. Rogers, who participated in the study, people have learned how to avoid natural selection in the short term. But ignorance is unsustainable.

In short, we've rewarded people for being uninformed by providing rescue from Mother Nature. Hike up a mountain without adequate knowledge or gear? No problem; volunteers from Search and Rescue will save you. Lost in the desert? Just dial 9-1-1.

It's past time to start obeying a law that's been on the books literally forever. You say you want to build your mansion among dense pine trees on the side of a mountain? Use fireproof materials, thin the trees, and bulldoze escape routes. Good luck: You're on your own.

A few years ago, fire threatened a subdivision in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The subdivision had only one narrow access road. Two firefighters tried to save a house as the woods blew up, and got trapped on the porch when the fire crowned. A helicopter-load of slurry saved both the men and the house. But the homeowner tried to sue; he wanted the fire department to pay for cleaning up the pink slurry.

A team of citizens -- I was a member -- was formed to plan how to avoid such scenarios in the future. Firefighters offered to educate subdivision dwellers and suggest tree-thinning and more escape routes. We decided that the driveways of homeowners who didn't comply would be marked, and no attempt would be made to save those houses. Judging by recent Western fires, however, not all fire departments have followed our lead.

The attempt to repeal natural laws is expensive. We reward people who make ignorant choices when we rescue them from the consequences of their actions. But natural selection is still in force, and the more we reward ignorance, the more of it we get.

You want your desert house to have a lawn? Sorry. Desert living requires sand, rock and cactus, and no swimming pool. Water is too precious to waste on self-delusion. You want a lawn? Move to where grass grows naturally.

You want to build in the trees? Stock your own firefighting tools. You've built on a flood plain? Buy a raft and water wings.  Please don't call on the public for help -- and don't count on a bailout from an insurance company or the federal government.

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She writes in Hermosa, South Dakota.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

"There is no security in Nature."
marty weiss
marty weiss
Feb 18, 2010 11:12 AM
With all the talk about health insurance, fire insurance and flood insurance, many people are lulled into forgetting they're basically on their own and responsible for their choices. Of all people, Helen Keller, who of course could neither see nor hear, said; "There is no security in Nature." Bears consideration.
Implementing common sense
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen
Feb 18, 2010 01:04 PM
    Several years ago, I proposed a way to implement Linda's sensible advice, a method that would respect private property rights while minimizing the burden on taxpayers. That is, why should a town resident in a trailer park pay higher taxes so there can be fire protection for some McMansion in a flammable forest?

    The solution is the Stupid Zone. Every rural county wound consult experts and draw up maps of combustible areas, flood plains, avalanche paths, unplowable roads and the like.

    Those areas would be designated Stupid Zones, and property buyers would have to be informed about that designation. They would, however, be free to build whatever they wanted.

    But they would receive no public services -- no fire-fighting, school buses, road-plowing, emergency rescue, etc. In other words, they would have to be totally responsible for their own well-being, as Linda explains.

    But so far, no matter how many counties adopt a "Code of the West" or a "Freedom to Farm" policy, none has tried the simple, cheap method of the Stupid Zone.

Robert Laybourne
Robert Laybourne
Feb 18, 2010 01:31 PM
The people that rebuild; often subsidized greatly, are different from the people similarly impacted in places like New Orleans 9th Ward. They are in higher income brackets. This is a typical societal upside down situation; give to the well-off; ignore the pauper.
a word to the wise
marty weiss
marty weiss
Feb 20, 2010 01:10 PM
Even the poorest have access to wisdom and understanding. My purpose in writing is to send word to the people of New Orleans to move to high ground. Sea level is rising and climate change will bring increasing extreme weather events.
To those who live further north, fire ants will move north and malaria and killer bees. Natural cycles will be disrupted. This winter of 2009-10 shows siberian temperatures migrate south, pushed by disruptions of the arctic circulation.
Move New Orleans to high ground now, while you can. Neither affluence nor poverty is an excuse for ignorance.
Right on!
Feb 22, 2010 08:24 PM
Well written. This is definitely an issue that's been ignored too long; unfortunately, it will continue (until trial lawyers become extinct). I am one of the search-and-rescue members you describe. We have oftentimes come back from a mission muttering 'we should have left those idiots out there'. Even so, we feel it's a duty to bring them back to safety, guess we're weird that way. Ed-- we have your article posted on the shop wall. We all agreed with your premise. I'd love to see 'stupid zones' on county zoning maps....
On Your Own
Barbara Wagner
Barbara Wagner
Feb 23, 2010 04:50 PM
Idea: get this reprinted in Los Angeles area newspapers, in OpEd.
Also in other places where the Stupid Zones should be mapped.