MONEY

Wildfires threaten newest residents of U.S. Western wilderness

Darin D. Sales of Hailey, Idaho, takes photos of the Beaver Creek Fire looming above the Wood River Valley town, Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. Photo: Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/MCT

WASHINGTON — Will wildfires grow ever bigger, more frequent and deadly? People who live in the rugged Western states are enduring another summer of scorched-earth devastation.

Colorado saw the most devastating wildfire in its history this year. The blaze killed two people, destroyed 16,000 acres of land and burnt down more than 500 buildings. Arizona is still mourning the deaths of 19 elite firefighters who were killed recently in the worst wildfire tragedy the state has ever seen. Californians have fought 43 percent more fires this year than the past four years put together.

Across the United States, the six worst fire seasons since 1960 have burned in the past 13 years. That includes 2012, when 9.2 million acres went up in flames. And the worst year was 2006, when 9.8 million acres burned.

Western state lawmakers have called on the federal government for more help and criticized its management of public lands. Large fires often start on federal territory and then spread to private and state lands. That’s a big issue in a region dominated by federally owned lands, which cover about 70 percent of Arizona and virtually all of Nevada.

Building In Risky Zones

The U.S. Forest Service labels about 65 million acres of its land at “high or very high risk of wildfires.” At the same time, state lawmakers are pondering how to use their own scarce resources. Although hot and dry weather is beyond the control of the authorities, states and localities can dictate where and how people live to put them at less risk from the wildfires.

Westerners are increasingly settling in communities built next to the wilderness, maybe in the hope of a little peace and quiet. This population shift has brought in new fire threats, putting more people and property in harm’s way, and making firefighting more complicated and expensive.

Fire-prone Texas, Utah, Colorado, Washington and Arizona have each ranked among the fastest-growing states since 2010. Much of the new population in these states is building houses in zones at serious risk from wildfire.

While people moving to land next to the wilderness is not a new trend, it is growing quickly. In the 1990s, some 61 percent of newly built homes in Washington, Oregon and California were considered inside this area. By 2000, about 42 percent of all homes in those three states were considered to be in the near-wilderness zone.

Researchers at Colorado State University expect that the inhabited fire zones will triple their size in Colorado by 2030 to more than 2.1 million acres.

Moving Into Danger

Wildfire expert Ray Rasker believes that as the demand for houses grows, more people will build in these risky areas. He thinks that the U.S. taxpayers will end up paying for these unwise decisions. Rasker is with Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan think tank in Montana.

A major problem is the disconnect between federal and local authorities, Rasker says. State and local leaders play a huge role in fire policy by setting laws on zoning, building construction and property maintenance. But it’s often the federal government’s job to step in to fight the fires or later dole out disaster aid.

The expert says there aren't enough fines or financial penalties for people who build houses in dangerous zones. Rasker believes that if that problem got sorted, the other issues would just fall into place.

Other experts have suggested that federal and state lawmakers should look at law changes that would slow the movement of people into the risky areas. Other new policies could be introduced to make the inhabitants of the fire zones more responsible for their decisions to move in.

This idea surfaced as long as seven years ago in a federal report. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general wrote that zoning and building regulations may be necessary to “make landowners take the actions necessary to protect their homes and property from wildfire.”

Many authorities have enacted strong fire-proofing measures, but many more go without protection or shelve existing plans. This is also often true in the actual communities at risk from a wildfire. One homeowner might spend thousands of dollars on a fire-resistant roof and property maintenance, such as clearing fire-fueling dried brush and branches. But this is useless for stopping a fire if neighbors neglect nearby properties.

California Leads The Way

Lloyd Burton is an environmental policy professor at the University of Colorado in Denver. He asked that if the residents of the fire zones “aren’t going to protect their own lives, why are they expecting others to?”

Some states have taken steps to make these areas safer. California, where about 40 percent of all housing nestles in wilderness, is a leader in this effort, said Burton. The state uses its building code and other laws to require more fire-safe housing, and maintain buffer zones that are free of flammable material. In 2011, the state also began charging rural dwellers a protection fee of $150 that has netted $84 million for its strained firefighting budget.

Oregon is another state that requires the zones to be kept clear of dry leaves and other debris that could fuel a wildfire. Landowners in Oregon are given fines if they violate these rules.

But for the most part, states tend to recommend fire-safety actions, rather than require them. That’s the case in Colorado, but it could soon change. Two task forces are discussing protection fees, new insurance regulations, building code changes and brush-clearing requirements.

Burton doesn’t mince words when he talks about responsibility in the wilderness. When wildfires threaten homes but not lives, he says a firefighting crew’s best option is simple: “Just let it burn.”

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