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Burning Issue Of Wildfires

Published: November 1, 2013

People want to live closer to nature, but that love of nature definitely carries with it inherent risks, in particular wildfires.

That reality of that risk was underlined in August when the Rim Fire burned more than 75,000 acres (400 square miles) near Yosemite National Park while simultaneously eating through 15 percent of the state’s $172 million firefighting budget.

Firefighters defended communities on the western edge of the Yosemite blaze, which charred 111 buildings including 31 residences, while danger loomed for 4,500 more homes. The Rim fire is the seventh largest in the state’s history. The average wildfire is now five times bigger than it was 30 years ago.

“The main issue in community risk is that people now want to live in closer proximity to the forest,” explained Wade Martin, chair of the Economics Department at CSULB and author of Wildfire Risk: Human Perceptions and Natural Implications. “As people build infrastructure on the wildland-urban interface, you get more of the built society exposed to these risks. The question becomes, how do you deal with that risk?”

“There are some things that homeowners can do and businesses can do. Historically, there are strategies that have been followed that focus on putting out fires as quickly as possible,” Martin explained. “But by doing that, you don’t allow nature to clean itself out. The fires have a bigger fuel load, they burn hotter and longer and faster and over more acres. Climate change also has affected the susceptibility of forests to more intense burning. The fire season is longer. The moisture content of the forest has decreased. Things burn easier.”

Community risk management begins at home, and there are a number of steps communities and individuals can take to reduce their community wildfire risk, including using safer building materials.

“Don’t put a shake roof on your home. You don’t want a redwood tree growing up through your redwood deck,” Martin pointed out. “Homeowners can be sure the fuels from the trees have been trimmed back and be sure that tree branches are cleared away from power lines.

“You need to create a defensible area around your home but your risk management is also based on what your neighbors do,” he added. “You would definitely want to make sure that wherever you build a home, you don’t build it at the end of an unpaved one-way street where the firefighters and safety personnel can’t get in and you can’t get out. You want that isolated experience but you’re also risking the lives of others when they try to defend your property.”

One of the keys to community risk management is money. Martin pointed to the passage of the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act in 2009 as a major development in fighting wildfires. The FLAME Act established two FLAME Funds in the Department of Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2010; one for the Department of the Interior funded at $61 million and one for the Forest Service funded at $413 million in 2010.

“What the FLAME Act did was to separate the firefighting budget from the Forest Service’s operating budget,” Martin pointed out. “Historically, firefighting costs came out of the Forest Service’s operating budget. The FLAME Act created another resource for fighting fires.”

The economic community is at risk, too. “As with any disaster seen from an economic point of view, you have the reduced production from the destruction of the existing infrastructure,” he said. “When people are evacuated, they are not able to work. You have this dislocation and a decline in economic activity.”

But the danger of wildfire risk isn’t exclusive to California. “When you put homes in close proximity to these threats, which have only increased over the last 20 years, then you’re looking at dramatic fires that threaten communities such as Colorado Springs or south Denver. Look at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 2000,” Martin noted. “The Cerro Grande Fire cost more than 400 families their homes in the resulting 48,000-acre fire. The majority of those residents moved back. The homes have been rebuilt. The desire to be in close proximity to nature outweighs the wildfire risk.”

Living the California lifestyle means wildfire risk will continue.

“Globally, California is in the top three areas facing wildfire risk along with Australia and France, but the issue is tradeoff. Homes are insured and it is very appealing to live close to nature,” Martin said. “Hopefully, in a more stable economic environment, there will be more resources available to treat the forests to reduce fuel loads and improve the health of the ecosystem. Perhaps that won’t happen anytime soon, but it will eventually because the alternative is looking at millions of dollars in losses.”