Monday, July 09, 2007

New York Times on WUI Fire Danger

If you haven't seen the special feature story, "At Your Peril: On Fringe of Forests, Homes and Fires Meet," published by the New York Times on June 26th, it's worth checking out while it lasts. Additionally, FUSEE's executive director got a letter-to-the-editor in response to that story published on July 3rd. That LTE is posted on the FUSEE website.

As recent events such as the Angora Fire near Lake Tahoe demonstrate, fast-moving wildfires can destroy hundreds of homes in a single burning period. While the smoking ruins of gutted homes attract journalists like snags attract bark beetles, there is a distinctly different tone to most of the news stories of wildfire disasters like the Angora Fire. For one thing, there is more social and ecological context provided, namely, the combined effects of rampant urban sprawl into fire-prone wildlands; the legacy of past timber extraction and fire exclusion leaving abundant fuels and dense vegetation to feed the flames; the role that climate change is playing in creating severe fire weather events; and the flammable state of many rural homes whose owners failed to build their structures out of fire-resistant materials or manage the surrounding vegetation on their properties. The stories are not the same old schtick of heroic firefighters battling demonic wildfires to save helpless homeowners.

The NYT article raises many excellent points about rampant surburban development, rising suppression costs, and the responsibilities of rural residents to do their share to reduce fire risks and fuel hazards.

One passage is worth commenting upon:

Forest Service officials say they are used to being blamed. “Neither our strategy nor our priorities have changed,” said Mark E. Rey, under secretary for natural resources and the environment at the Department of Agriculture.

Safety of firefighters comes first, Mr. Rey said, then safety of residents, protection of structures and protection of resources.

Setting aside the obstinate "stay the course" stance that echoes the Bush Administration's position on the war in Iraq, Mark Rey is flat wrong in his assessment of priorities. According to the Federal Wildland Fire Policy--that "mother-of-all" interagency policies that serves as the philosophical foundation for all federal fire management agencies and applies to every acre of Federal land containing burnable vegetation--protection of private property and natural resources are of equal importance and prioritization. Suppression strategies depend on an assessment of the relative values at risk. Thus, as a hypothetical example, when faced with a choice of defending a single, remote triple-wide mobile home or a rare old-growth wildlife reserve, the home should not automatically be selected as the number one priority--just the opposite! The mobile home can be quickly replaced, but not so the old-growth grove.

This exemplifies a problem that has endured since the inception of the Federal Wildland Fire Policy: the gross ignorance and indifference of agency officials to fully understand, implement, and abide by the Fire Policy. When it was first unveiled in 1995, the federal government announced that the agencies were getting out of the business of structural fire suppression and getting into ecological fire restoration. Sadly, those were just false promises.

Ultimately, the restoration of ecological integrity and reintroduction of wildland fire offers the best promise of reducing both firefighter fatalities and home losses. Had the Fire Policy been faithfully implemented from the beginning, we would be way ahead of the curve in terms of reducing home losses to wildfire. Instead, we are chasing the dragon, and the dragon is hungry for houses.

The destructive mix of ignorance and arrogance that marks the Bush/Rey Administration should be included in future news features and the media's examinations of the social and ecological context of current wildfire events. Forest Service officials like Mark Rey bragging that "neither our strategy nor priorities have changed" amidst a rapidly changing environment, while facing widespread and well-deserved blame for mismanaging the public's forests is hardly an example of leadership or display of comfort to the wildland firefighters or rural residents who must sift through the ashes of the Administration's skewed priorities and neglected policies.

--Lead Lighter


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