Most dry summer months, somewhere in the country, awildfire fills the sky with flames and forbidding columns of smoke. During therest of the year, state and local governments would do well to keep that specterin mind when they determine where many American communities will be growing.
In too many places, people have been moving into the edges of fire-prone forestsand dry grasslands, establishing a new American frontier where settlement mixeswith wild landscapes. And theyre counting on governments to protect them whenflames come roaring in their direction.
As one consequence, the U.S. governments costs to fight wildfires have soaredto $2 billion per year. Roughly half of last years wildland fires burnedacross national forests and on other federally owned lands. Meanwhile, stateforestry agencies and rural fire departments also have been bearing a mountingshare of controlling blazes that race onto state lands and private property.Last year, for example, Californias firefighting costs climbed close to $200million, twice the amount state officials had budgeted.
With its expansive national forests and desert grasslands, the West has beenparticularly vulnerable to calamitous wildfires. But this spring, after monthsof drought, nearly 29,000 fires also broke out in the South, burning more than1.1 million acres.
Several fires merged in southeastern Georgia and northern Florida, burning600,000 acres and scorching through the Okefenokee Swamp. Moreover, during thepast century, forests in the Northeast have reclaimed abandoned farms with densetree stands.
Wildfires are clearly a national problem as millions of Americans move tosprawling exurban towns or second-home resorts that sit on the fringe ofcombustible forests, within hailing distance of the fastest-growing metropolitanareas. During the 1990s, more than 10 million new homes were built within 15.5miles of a national park, national forest or wilderness.
In the Lower 48 states, 60 percent of all new housing units were located inwhats called the wildland-urban interface. The interface now covers 9 percentof the land and holds more than a third of the nations population. The trendwill accelerate as jobs move to suburban offices and industrial parks, babyboomers retire to rural towns, and urban professionals buy bucolic weekendretreats just a days drive from major cities. Once the buffer betweencivilization and wilderness, much of the countrys woods, foothills and swampshave begun filling with homes that could be in the path of wildfires.
The presence of these homes makes it more difficult and costly for thegovernment officials who are responsible for bringing wildfires under control.Last year, a U.S. Forest Service audit concluded that the federal agency hasbeen spending up to $1 billion a year as much as 95 percent of the expenseof fighting some big fires to protect homes and other structures. Thatscoming out of taxpayers pockets, but homebuilders, real estate agents,bankers and insurance companies havent taken that into account as they play arole in developing subdivisions that encroach on fire-prone landscapes. Nor, sofar, have most local government land-use planning efforts.
But federal and state officials are thinking about forcing counties to pick upfirefighting costs, unless they start regulating interface development. Utah andOregon have already imposed land-use planning requirements, and the MontanaLegislature looked at the issue although it balked this year at withholdingstate fire-suppression funds from counties that dont manage growth in riskyterrain.
U.S. Forest Service officials are also talking up that idea, but in the words ofJim R. Wattenburger, a supervisor in Mendocino County, Calif., If you startcramming building codes down our throats, youre going to make the SagebrushRebellion look tame. Yet Wattenburger is a retired California statefirefighter himself.
After defending one Malibu mansion for the third time, he told the owner, Ifyou rebuild here again, Im not coming back.
For half a century, Smokey Bear told the public we could count on firefightersto do whatever it takes to stomp out blazes before they threaten lives andproperty.
Ecologists now see fire as an elemental force that cleanses and refurbishes thenatural environment. It will be a tough sell, but local officials and firemanagers need to let borderland residents know that they put themselves and manyothers at risk when they move out to that nice place in the trees.