Burn, baby, burn: the last word on fire policy

T.A. Barnhart

In the midst of the wildfires that swept through southern California last week, one Californian had this to say:

"They build all these new houses, and then they can't take care of all the people they bring in," he says. "Suddenly, everybody's future depends on which way the wind blows. (Sunday Oregonian, Oct 28, 2007)"

This was not a spokesman for an environmental group, or a public official, or even a fire fighter. This was a man whose house was in danger of being destroyed by the fires. His house wasn't one of the new ones he was referring to, but it is new enough: twenty years old. And like the new ones he's talking about, his house was built in a very bad place: Southern California.

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky burn so niceSouthern California is not a bad place as such. It's just that it has the peculiar characteristic that makes it a rotten place to live: There is no water there. And to make it worse, its natural inclination is to have wildfires. Lots of wildfires, and almost every year. Southern California has a lovely climate if you're sick of cold and rain, but it's just a lousy place to situate tens of millions of people. "Naturally burns on a regular basis" looks pretty bad on a sales brochure, but in a geography textbook, it's just a simple fact.

There are many places across America to which fire returns the way the tide does at the ocean shore. No one would set up a tent, much less build a house, down on the sand when the tide goes out. Beach houses have to be set back far enough to be safe from the high tides and storms that are possible, as well as erosion of beaches that occur over time. No one really has sympathy for people who build too close to the beach; we've known for a few thousand years the right way to build near to the sea. Ignore those lessons and it's just a matter of time until you're having a pointless discussion with your insurance company.

Somehow, we have never understood the nature of fire in the same way, and yet fire is one of the most important natural elements in human life. Fire keeps us warm, helps us eat well, allows us to make iron and glass, protects us from enemies and makes a cool backdrop for kicking the next loser off the island. Yet humans, and especially Americans (I don't know enough about Australia to put them in this same category, but they don't seem much better off), are pretty stupid about fire.

"You mean fire burns up the forests and wildlands near where people build their homes?" Fire burns wherever there is fuel, and despite the fact that fire scientists have known for decades that America's policy of crushing every fire as quickly and thoroughly as possible — fire "suppression" — simply makes the problem worse; we continue to do exactly that. Because Americans are not only stupid about fire, they are scared to death of it.

Here is the way fire works in nature. As vegetation grows, be it grass or bramble or centuries-old trees, it produces dead matter. Grass withers; branches and twigs dry up and fall to the ground; entire plants die, to be replaced the next year by new growth. All that dead growth decomposes to keep the soil alive, but the more woody it is — and much of it is very woody — the more slowly it rots. Even grasses take a while to return to the soil. And while all this dead vegetation is taking its sweet time to turn to soil, if the weather turns dry — which strangely enough, it has done in most summers since about, oh, I'd say, 1 zillion BC — then a magical transformation occurs. No longer do you have dead grasses, fallen branches, and semi-decomposed plants.

You have fuel. Lots and lots of fuel.

But there really is some magic in all of this, the kind of magic created by that dark master of all that is evil and stands against human progress: evolution. Over the millennia, fire and vegetation have formed an amazing arrangement. The grasses, shrubs and trees provide fuel for fire, and fire burns in a way that helps the grasses, shrubs and trees thrive. They take care of each other, even if they are not as smart as the humans who come along and destroy their working arrangements just because they think a hillside outside of town would be a nice place to live.

Fire gets rid of dead grasses so that new growth is possible. Fire clears the underbrush of shrubs so that new trees can grow. There are seeds that need the heat of fire to germinate or crack through the hard nuts in which they are encased. Fire speeds greatly the process of turning wood into compost. Once a fire has passed through and done its job, grasses and shrubs regrow quickly; seeds germinate; trees that have some blackening of their trunks (many trees have evolved thick barks that can resist all but the most intense fires) just continue as if nothing happened. Winter and spring follow the hot summers of fire, and the cycle continues. Fire returns when the conditions are right, and the plants that provide the fuel benefit from the visit.

Of course, neither fire nor vegetation own real estate. They simple try to occupy it against human will. So in America, we do what we've always done when faced with opposition to our divinely mandated will: We respond with the violence of war. Unlike nature, we fight fires. It's a fight we continue to lose; it's a fight we never can win unless, as Joni Mitchell suggested, we truly do pave paradise. If, as the Sunday Oregonian article states, tens of thousands of people do move into parts of the state where fire has an historic, and natural, presence, the only option will be to create buffers between the wildlands and the developments. To protect the homes built in what is called the "wildland-urban interface," the natural part of that interface will need to be replaced with fire-resistant barriers: concrete, perhaps, or Field Turf. Stuff that will keep the forest fires out of people's living rooms.

People, of course, will hate that. They buy a home out in the woods to live out in the woods (and we'll ignore at this time the falsity of bringing surburbia to the edge of the wilderness and pretending this represents living in a natural environment). If they wanted a concrete barrier around their home, they could just have easily moved to Tigard or Sherwood. But government is going to have no other option. Well, they will have one other option, but good luck with that one: forbidding development in areas where fires are a part of the natural cycle of life.

The question of whether or not fire suppression is the wrong policy is no longer in dispute. Forest and wildland managers (and there's a title reflecting concepts of incredible hubris and arrogance) know that fire "fighting" has to be replaced by some form of cooperative (with nature) fire control: letting the natural process of fire conduct its ancient business. There is no other option, unless it's to send thousands of people out into the woods to pick up all the twigs and rake the dead grasses, not to mention thin out the shrubs, spread compost, and plant germinated seeds. In other words, try to do exactly what fire does.

I hate that people have lost their homes and treasured possessions; the deaths of people who get caught by the speed and power of fire is tragic no matter the circumstances regarding fire and development policies. But we are at a place where we must stop being stupid and start doing things right. Of course, with a timber industry uber-advocate (and former lobbyist) like Mark Rey leading the Forest Service, we know that anything that gets in the way of cutting down trees is not going to become policy. And given how the home construction industry uses its clout, and its bribes, stupidity is going to continue to trump science and intelligence for years to come.

And the PR campaign that suckered Oregonians into passing Measure 37 two years ago is just one more depressing factor. There is a lot of policy we have to change to prevent tragedies like we've seen in recent weeks. Are we ready to make the necessary hard choices? Back in the 90s, under the more enlightened Clinton Administration, towns that were built in places where the Mississippi River always flooded were finally moved uphill; reality was finally acknowledged and human will gave way to nature's superior strength. Obviously, this is not going to happen under Bush, and probably not under any Republican leadership and precious few Democratic administrations at any level. The money and public demand are too great for most political wills.

Too bad for all everybody that the planet is stronger still. Fire, like bad memories, can be suppressed for only so long before something breaks free. And like the psychoses that trouble and destroy human minds, the ways in which fire, and nature, will find to break free of unnatural constraints in order to continue their natural courses will not be the least bit healthy for anyone.

Except the planet.

  • Peter Bray (unverified)

    Voting Yes on Measure 49 is a step in the right direction of limiting the sprawling subdivisions that only make the risk to life and property all the more likely.

  • Mike Austin (unverified)

    One thing I want to add is that the grass in California - that golden grass that is all but ubiquitous - is an introduced species. It was brought to California by settlers (from Wisconsin, I believe). It is far less fire resistant than the native grasses it replaced. So, while California has always been a very fire-prone place, the damage that fire causes is much greater now in part because the native grasses have been replaced by more fire-prone varieties. It is the burning grasses that account for the rapid advance of current fires, more so than the logging and fire suppression policies. The grass-fires spread until they find the logging slash and then all hell breaks loose.

  • John Adams (unverified)

    Absolutely! Voting Yes on Measure 49 is definitely a step in the right direction.

  • ws (unverified)

    From Lin Quio's comment over on the "Happy Dumb Us" article by Paulie Brading(no personal slight intended Lin):

    "I heard a radio broadcast via streaming audio from KPBS (San Diego PBS affiliate) about how the rebuilding would provide an economic stimulus."

    Oh hey!...rebuilding would provide an economic stimulus!! And after all, in the overall scheme of things, that's what's REALLY important, right? Are those burned houses a result of people buying into the idea that it was their property and they should be able to do whatever they want with it? So they did, manifest destiny style. I think the figure on the news I heard tonight was 2000 homes burned.

    Maybe if property owners thoroughly eradicate every trace root of vegetation from those hillsides and turn them into one vast asphalt WalMart parking lot, people can build their houses on it and be safe from the Santa Ana fires.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    Peter and John, kindly 'splain how voting yes on 49 in Oregon will help stop wildfires in SoCal?

    Blatant political takeover of a topic.

  • Displaced Oregano (unverified)

    I bought a house SE of Bend across the fence from the National Forest in 1992. It was on a hill covered with dry brush and had a (mandaded-by-CC&R's) cedar shake roof. When the Skeleton fire came by (1996) and burned 19 houses, mine was saved by 1) a fire truck & crew and 2)the efforts by myself and the former owner to clear and maintain a firebreak all around it, which is why the crew defended it.

    In an event such as this, and yes, SoCal is prime wildfire country, nobody can count on a fire truck in the yard, so responsible homeowners at the rural interface should be careful, or even paranoid, about maintaining a firebreak around their home and other structures.

    It has always amazed me that insurers will write policies without requiring careful inspections to assess wildfire risks, especially in rural subdivisions. If they required some sort of inspection & approval process, and rewarded proactive clients with favorable rates, many of these losses might be avoided. Maybe the insurers should band together and pay the local fire departments (or create/hire a private expert firm) to go around to each home and advise the owners (and insurers) what steps should be taken to protect that property from a wildfire. Then they could reward those who comply and adjust the rates accordingly. An annual inspection (in about July) might be needed to assure maintenance, new growth and plantings are OK.

    This sort of action should be taken for all predictable risks like building on flood plains, etc. I do feel for the people of New Orleans, but how are we as federal taxpayers reasonably responsible for homes built -- and now rebuilt -- below sea level in a hurricane zone? My opinion was that they should have built a high wall around New Orleans and diverted the Missisippi INTO it until the sediment deposited raised the ground level appropiately. But that's another issue.

    I had a claim for a few tens of thousands for damage to the roof, lanscaping, and an outbuilding, and was amazed and appalled how free they were with the settlememt money -- their priority is to settle it quick and build the loss into the rates (for everybody). If they had spent even a couple hundred bucks a client on prevention first, they (and we) might be well ahead. After the fire they "discovered" my house was further than 2 miles from a firehall and quadrupled my rates, so I swithched to another firm with different criteria. It's not like the house or firehall had moved.

    When I arrived home from out-of-state four days after the fire, my yard and neighborhood were like a moonscape, except for my home and the others that had been defensible and defended. The firefighters told me over pizza later that in some of the 19 cases there was simply no way to defend the home. The photos they shared with me showed flames about 60 feet high approaching my (shake-roofed) house but, with couple dozen feet cleared around the house, it was saved.

    I think most homeowners would choose to do the right thing, especially with a monetary incentive, but the party actually facing the risk -- the insurers -- need to take the lead and give them the information and the incentive.

    By the way, is your house vulnerable to wildfire?

  • (Show?)

    DO, 2 months ago the term "CC&R's" would have slipped right by me; now i work for a company that manages HOA's, so i understand a few things that were totally alien to me then. 1, since HOA's are becoming par for the course, have the right safety rules built into the CC&R's is a simple and effective way to get firebreaks and fire-safe landscaping. having state law mandate such will help even more. 2, pretty landscaping and nice views have to come second to safety. planned communities are built on the cheap, at least when it comes to landscaping, so it's up to the HOA to transform whatever the developer dumps on them with more appropriate plantings.

    New Orleans is a unique case; you can't relocate a city of that size, and raising it above sea level isn't possible. had the Corps of Engineers properly maintained the levees, of course (a failure in multiple administrations, not just Bush's), then the Katrina disaster probably wouldn't have happened. another example of failing to take preventative steps and ending up spending far, far more -- and seeing innocent people die.

  • Sally (unverified)

    Climate change, caused by overpopulation, wasteful resource use, pollution, and rampant development. I don't think this is something that's going to improve. The article below was for last year's fire season in Southern California.

    Remember that SoCal is experiencing its worst drought in 100 years. Less rain fell this past year than any year in recorded history http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2003110148_fires07.html

    Western wildfires linked to climate change

    A broad change in the West's climate — spring coming earlier, mountain snows melting sooner and forests turned to tinder by rising temperatures — has stoked an increase in large wildfires over the past 34 years, scientists reported Thursday.

    More than land-use changes or forest-management practices, the researchers concluded, the changing climate was the most important factor driving a four-fold increase in the average number of large wildfires in the western United States since 1970.

    All told, the average fire season has grown more than two months longer, while fires have become more frequent and harder to extinguish. They also burn longer and destroy 6.5 times more land than in the 1970s, the researchers found.

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)

    Kurt Chapman: Voting Yes on Measure 49 will reduce the destruction caused by wildfires in Oregon. They occur here too (Tillamook Burn, anyone?). And hundreds, or even thousands of new homes in what are now commercial forest areas will bring California's disaster closer to home here in Oregon.

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)

    One thought I have had for many years about homes in California - back to when I lived there 20 years ago - why aren't homes built of non-combustible materials? The California adobe house existed 200 years ago, and adobe can now be made that is as safe as anything in an earthquake. Why not build homes out of stone or rocks, for that matter?

  • Peter Bray (unverified)

    Mr. Chapman, it is hardly a takeover. You can find reference to Oregon and Measure 37 and implicitly Measure 49 in the blog entry:

    And the PR campaign that suckered Oregonians into passing Measure 37 two years ago is just one more depressing factor. There is a lot of policy we have to change to prevent tragedies like we've seen in recent weeks.

    Sprawl in forests leads to property damage and lives lost. Period. Measure 49 will limit sprawl. Period. Vote Yes on Measure 49. Exclamation Mark.

  • Kitty C (unverified)

    "They build all these new houses, and then they can't take care of all the people they bring in,".

    T.A. Is this really a homeowner? If so didn't that homeowner have a choice of where to live? Who is this 'they' the homeowner is talking about.

    Typical progressive bs to look for total government relief when poor choices were made by an individual.

    And yes, I live in the Rouge Valley, because I am afraid of mountain fires.

  • Anonymous (unverified)

    Its just sickening how you people can politicize something like this. the loss of life and property is not an excuse to promote your political agenda.

  • ws (unverified)

    "If so didn't that homeowner have a choice of where to live?" Kitty C

    I wonder just how much choice residents of these burned houses actually had to live there rather than a safer area. Just who are these people anyway? Demographics might help to understand this better.

    My general impression is that the residents aren't lower mid-income, low-income people, but rather, people with fair incomes. On the other hand, maybe the wealth of these people, or their ability to choose to live in these places, or not, isn't so great. The housing depicted in the photo accompanying the lead article doesn't particularly look like luxury housing.

    Economics obliges many people to live in housing that often isn't very safe. Many, many more people are responsible for allowing the market to be dominated by construction of such housing in the face of common knowledge that it's unwise to do so.

  • andy (unverified)

    Part of the problem in CA is that the insurance industry is too heavily regulated so they can't adjust the rates to reflect the true risks. For instance, if the market behaved properly the insurance company would be able to raise the rates when a homeowner placed their house in the middle of a fire hazard. Since the insurance companies aren't allowed to make adjustments like that the true cost isn't passed on to the homeowner. That is one reason why you get people building their houses in risky places. It is the same reason why people build houses in the Gulf Coast and get help from the government to rebuild every few years. If we charged people the actual risk rate then it would weed out some of the bad behavior.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    I respectfully disagree. I bet you couldn't find TEN homes in the Tillamook Burn. 49 doesn't stop sprawl; it merely centralizes the planning for it. Here in the Rogue Valley they have been successfully building up both sides of the Valley for years until they are well w/in the wildland/urban interface.

    Measure 49 won't stop wildfire; it won't stop Santa Ana winds and it won't stop homes already at the wildland/urban interface from burning when the next fire begins.

    De-centralized property planning, responsible homeowners and a well prepared emergency response is what will stop homes from burning in the event of the next wildfire in Oregon.

  • CBP (unverified)

    I agree that it would be nice for the insurance companies to be involved with fire prevention and most are various levels, State Farm has grants available at the local level for small scale wildfire prevention education all the way to most of the big companies helping support Firewise.org As far as the local fire departments, if yours is active in the community it a good resource but the norm has been in numerous areas had been to be re-active instead of pro-active as prevention is a dirty word and takes the fun out of fighting fire. As a former Lieutenant with a volunteer fire department the mentality is consistantly to not put any money into prevention or to just respond and not hold people accountable for their poor decisions.

    Currently all but about 4 or 5 counties in Oregon have Community Wildfire Protection(CWPP) Plans. Currently the Oregon Department of Forestry is working on projects throughout Clackamas County ranging from fuel reduction projects on both private and public land (funded through federal grant programs) to help reduce the effect and give us a better chance to stop wildfires that can devistate communities and infrastructure.(see California!)

    Currently Multnomah County does not have a community wildfire plan due to numerous agencies within the county that are unable to get over themselves and come to the table for the common good instead of all of them needing to be the biggest player. If you think that all of Multnomah County is PDX you have forgotten about all the land to the east(almost 100,000 acres of private productive timberland all the way to Bonneville) and to the west(Forest park and approx 40,000 acres of private timber). In all these area are homes mixed into the WUI.

    I urge you to contact your local Fire Department and take them to task about wildfire prevention.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    T.A. quotes Joni Mitchell, so I gotta come back with James Taylor ("I've seen fire and I've seen rain.") Yeah, it does rain in SoCal, often really hard in March and April and then the homes that weren't destroyed in fires tumble down the hill in mudslides. Happens in Malibu every year.

    I've always wondered if it rained enough down there to capture it and use it, as they do in Hawaii. When I lived there--some 20 years ago--there was an effort to conserve water, but not to capture rain.

    As for Measure 49, if we don't pass it, the Bend-Redmond-Prineville Metroplex will continue to grow and so will the number of wildfires that consume homes.

  • ws (unverified)

    Good article in the NYTimes, Sunday, Oct 28th, "Rethinking Fire Policy in the Tinderbox Zone"(sorry, I don't seem to be getting how to use the link script offered):


    The phrase "wildland urban interface" really gets my attention. The article has an accompanying map indicating numbers of houses built next to California wildlands between the years 90'-2000, from L.A. county south to San Diego. All together on the map, some 300,000 houses are indicated. Check out this accompanying graphic:

    javascript:pop_me_up2('http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2007/10/27/us/20071028_THREAT_GRAPHIC.html', '931_869', 'width=931,height=869,location=no,scrollbars=yes,toolbars=no,resizable=yes')

    I don't have much of a problem with the occasional house or cabin spaced widely from others in places like say, Welches, Rhododenron or ZigZag, but I do with the seemingly compulsively built suburban developments right up next to wildlands in California. These kind of developments are completely irresponsible, and possible suggestions made that "De-centralized property planning, responsible homeowners and a well prepared emergency response is what will stop homes from burning in the event of the next wildfire in Oregon." (Andy), just doesn't seem to hold much water in California's situation.

  • Sally (unverified)

    Typical progressive bs to look for total government relief when poor choices were made by an individual.

    Good government has a role in regulating land use. How would ordinary citizens know if land is prone to flooding, fires, tornados, earthquakes or other natural disasters if effective land use planning doesn't occur.

    This is a reasonable role for local, regional, state and federal govt agencies.

    Insurance in the hills of California isn't cheap. My brother pays thousands in home insurance for a relatively modest house in the foothills near Yosemite. I don't think the fact he pays almost 10x what I do for insurance means that California's insurance is "over regulated"


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