When, Not If


Have we learned anything about wildfires and people living in high fire-hazard areas? (“The Bigger Burn,” HCN, 8/3/15.) The late columnist Ed Quillen got it right when he challenged the “closer to nature” lifestyle of people unconcerned about wildfires until one was knocking on their front door. He called this living in “the stupid zone.”

When I work as a consultant with people living in forested areas, I ask them, “What will you do when the fire comes? That’s when, not if.” I advise them on how to use fire-resistant construction materials and create a safe zone around their homes. But as good as these measures are, they are like putting a Band-Aid on the larger land-use issue. Should people even be living in high fire-risk areas? We have zoned floodplain areas to not allow buildings there. What stops us from zoning high fire-risk forested areas as unbuildable?

Arizona’s Yarnell Hill Fire involved protecting homes that really should not have been built on the steep brush-covered hillsides outside of town. The tragedy of this fire is that 19 firefighters died trying to save homes.

Scientists are telling us that climate change conditions will result in an increase in the number of wildfires and their size. Fire scientist and author Stephen J. Pyne has told us it is time to rethink wildfire public policies. But equally important, we must rethink and create new land-use policies that regulate where we build our homes. The alternative is more Yarnell and Pateros “tragedies.”

Jurgen Hess
Hood River, Oregon

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