Tom Power Commentary: “Heroism Is Not a Cure for Stupidity: Battling Wildfire”

Again, a ferocious wild fire season is upon us across much of the American West. Our websites, television screens, and newspapers are again dominated by scenes of utter destruction as entire neighborhoods are burned to the ground. Fire fighters both on land and in the air engage in heroic feats to try to hold back the flames and save human lives and homes. The pictures of huge walls of flames roaring across mountains send shivers down our spines as a mix of awe at the beauty and power of wildfire and primordial fear sweep over us.
A recent meta-study of wildfires in the North American west sought to synthesize what we know about the relationship between wildfire and climate. The study drew on the scientific work of five dozen researchers who have studied fire histories in the West both in recent decades as well in centuries past by analyzing tree rings and other historical evidence. This set of 1,200 studies covered 3,200 years of fire history in the West including tens of thousands of individual fires.
The initial general conclusions of the study match what old timers who have fought wildfires most of their lives have always said: “We don’t put wildfires out. We fool around on the edges trying to protect people and property waiting for weather conditions to change and put the fires out for us.”
The study’s conclusions for wildfire management were the following:
“If there is a single take-home message from this synthesis [of wildfire research], it is that managers will have to learn to work with, not against, the time-varying influence of climate on widespread fire years; recent experience suggests that it is unlikely that the forces that set up west-wide fire years can be resisted at the scale of individual forests or management units…[A]nalysis of modern fire climatology indicates the prevailing influence of seasonal climate (temperature and precipitation) [and]… snowpack duration. [W]idespead fire years are set up by regional and sub-continental climate variation…and are unlikely to be controlled by local fire suppression efforts.” [p. 40, emphasis added]
As one federal fire control officer recently put it: “When the weather is on our side, we can put wildfires out. When the weather is not on our side, we have to just get out of the way.” When an area is suffering through a regional drought or the temperatures are high, the humidity low, and wind speed is high and unpredictable, wildfires can burn through almost anything: thinned forests, clear-cut forests, grasslands, and scrublands. It is not human activity or lack of it that is the source of these widespread wildfires. It is a natural force just like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods.
That is not to say that the impacts of these natural forces on human beings are entirely beyond our control. For many decades we have successfully used building regulations and controls to minimize the loss of human life and property from natural disasters. It is rare, now, in developed countries, for entire cities to burn down the way that Chicago did in 1871 or for entire cities to be leveled by earthquakes the way San Francisco was in 1906. For almost a century, building codes have sought to reduce the flammability of homes and businesses and to prevent a fire in one location from spreading to all adjacent properties. Electrical and heating appliance codes have sought to keep buildings from catching fire in the first place. Building codes now require structures to be built so as to resist earthquakes and hurricanes. We also try to keep people from building in flood plains where they and their homes and businesses are likely to be swept away by regular floods.
But we have done almost nothing about people building entire small cities within very flammable natural landscapes. Nor have we required them to build in such a way as to increase the likelihood that those homes could resist the approach of wildfire and the firebrands that will be carried by the wind from a distant fire to those homes. We allow individual homes to be highly flammable and surrounded by highly flammable decorative landscapes so that the home becomes the equivalent of a torch to set neighbors’ homes on fire even though those neighbors took the appropriate fire safety steps.
We know that weather conditions will periodically produce wildfires that no one can control. Yet we allow people to build homes and communities within those dangerous landscapes and then, when the inevitable wildfire comes along, we rely on the heroism of fire fighters and hundreds of millions of dollars of tax payers’ money to do what cannot be done: Hold back a powerful force of nature.
Those tax payers’ expenditures go far beyond the army of brave fire fighters who fight to save homes that never should have been built where they were. As soon as fire season is over, there are regular cries to spend billions of dollars more to punch roads deep into our forested mountains to “thin” the forests and remove “hazardous fuels.” This is the equivalent of spitting into the wind or trying to extinguish fires by dropping paper money on them.
The place to protect ourselves from wildfire is immediately around our homes and cities. The way to reduce the threat to human life and property is to stop the sprawl of human habitation into dangerous landscapes.
In the long run, human heroism will be no match for human stupidity that ignores or flaunts widely recognized, powerful natural forces.

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