Eight of the ten fastest-growing US states are in the West. Much new residential development is occurring in fire-prone areas close to federal public lands. This is known as the "wildland-urban interface."
These new residential areas are popular due to their proximity to the environmental quality and natural amenities offered by national forests, parks, and wilderness areas. But this means that more communities and homes are threatened by fires burning on federal lands.
Federal, local volunteer, and urban firefighters spend ever more time protecting new construction in the West's forests. Because of this wildland-urban interface, firefighting has become more complicated, expensive, and dangerous.
Unfortunately, ecological changes resulting from a century of federal land management practices (e.g., fire exclusion, livestock grazing, and selective removal of tree species) and recent drought conditions have compounded the problem. One hundred years ago the region's warm, dry, low-elevation forests experienced frequent, low-severity fires.
Back then, the tree stands were less dense, larger, and more fire-resistant. For example, in the Bitterroot valley of western Montana, some lower-elevation stands of ponderosa pines once held 20 to 50 trees per acre. Since effective fire suppression began, around 1900, these same stands are now choked with 10 to 100 times as many trees.
In general, many of the region's lower-elevation forests have changed from more fire-resistant to more flammable tree species. And today's wildfires typically burn hotter, faster, and larger than those of the past. One key policy question is: How should we effectively and economically protect lives and property in these forests? Understanding two points will help. Here they are:
One: America's national forests are highly valued on many dimensions, and the ranking of these values--each with its own constituency--has shifted away from commodity production and toward recreation, biodiversity, and aesthetics.
Our national forests are also ecologically complex and diverse. They span ecosystems from Puerto Rico to Alaska. Thus it should come as no surprise that what works to reduce fire hazard in Alaska will not work in Puerto Rico.
Fire is a dramatic and essential ingredient in the West's ecosystems. Fires, especially in the higher-elevation forests, are characterized by infrequent stand-replacing events such as the 1988 Yellowstone fires that burned approximately one-half of the park. Veteran firefighters know the best way to fight such fires is to pray for an early snowfall. Unless there are enormous subsidies to remove fuel from high-elevation, low-productivity forests, huge, out-of-control fires are inevitable.
Two: Local governments have a responsibility to explore the full range of policy options, including incentives, education, and regulations, to ensure that development enhances social well-being. This is particularly true when addressing development in and near our forests. Fire building codes are one option. Subdivision covenants (e.g., fire-resistant roofing, underground water storage, and landscape requirements), designed and enforced by local fire departments, are another.
Insurance companies can play a major role by promoting policies that encourage fire-safe property maintenance. However, today fire risk is not yet a significant component of insurance rates. But this will evolve as rates reflect increasing risk.
What we should avoid is public policy that shelters people from the responsibility of these risks. We can learn from the barrier islands off the East Coast.
Hurricanes are an annual threat to these islands, just as fire is throughout much of the West. When hurricanes occur, federal disaster funds are made available to the property owners. This creates a moral hazard: island investors anticipate these funds when building. Consequently, they shift the risk to innocent victims--the general taxpayer. And they often rebuild.
People will continue to build homes in forests and in dry years fires will burn. Surely we don't want to replicate the "Barrier Island Pathology" of federal bailouts. The solution lies in making those who place themselves in harm's way responsible for reducing fire losses.
The problems bequeathed by 100+ years of poor forest management have no easy, low-cost solution. In the forests of the American West, fire is the dominant natural force for change. Just as citizens in the North Country learned to live with blizzards, we need to understand the dynamics of fire and responsibly deal with it.