"Sprawling into danger"

Devastation was wrought across California over the last two weeks as a spate of wildfires, powered by the mighty Santa Ana winds, roared across the landscape, while firefighters struggled for days to gain control and citizens scattered in the face of danger. While most people probably didn’t give much of a thought to the “why”, other than perhaps how it started, fires such as these point to a much larger (and perhaps uncomfortable) question about our development patterns.

Bill Patzert, a climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the Washington Post, “a lot of the problem here is that we’ve become part of the fuel. Nobody wants to talk about it, but in the last 50 years the population of California has increased by a factor of six, especially in the areas they’re having fires. It’s the convergence of Mother Nature and human nature.”

Not only are there more Americans than ever before, but more of us, whether we know it or not, live in areas that are prone to wildfires. Ironically, even as some look to the federal authorities to rescue them from danger, a collection of federal policies over the last 50 years have actually encouraged this settlement pattern. The problem really goes much deeper, though. Not only are we encouraging development in dangerous areas, but some of our fire management policies actually make the problem worse. Much worse. As the Post says:

“As much as they blame Santa Ana “devil winds” and record dryness, ecologists, climate researchers and firefighters say that the towering, uncontrollable conflagrations of the past week gorged themselves on huge stocks of natural fuel that were the result of a decades-old policy of fighting every blaze in sight, including small blazes that, left alone, would have burned themselves out.”

Wildfire and AmericansAfter leading the National Park Service from 1993-1997, Roger Kennedy saw firsthand the dangers that wildfires pose to Americans. He wrote a fantastic book last year called “Wildfire and Americans: How to Save Lives, Property, and Your Tax Dollars” about how urban dispersal and scores of federal and local policies have resulted in development and settlement in known flame zones, and how the shocking lack of planning affects all of us.

In light of the recent fires in California, we sent him a few questions, which he was kind enough to answer for us. By all means, read his book to get a complete understanding of the issue, but hopefully this will give a little primer on how we have been “sprawling into danger,” as Mr. Kennedy puts it.

Q. Describe in brief the collection of policies over the last 50 years that resulted in the dispersal from cities and subsequent heavy development in fire prone areas. How did we get here?

Roger Kennedy, courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson CenterWe got so many people in dangerous places because we deliberately broke up the old cities for fear they would become unsafe during the Cold War, and paid too little attention to the places to which their citizens were encouraged to disperse…we did not and do not warn where dangers lie, nor do we distinguish where we will use taxpayer money to underwrite mortgages and roads. (image from the Woodrow Wilson Center)

Q. How many Americans are living in flame zones today? Do think most of them have any idea?

Tens of millions – more every day. NO they are not warned.

Q. Is there any way to truly prevent what is happening in California, and has happened elsewhere in other parts of the country? What’s our best bet for preventing disaster?

Stop subsidizing it by promiscuous granting of mortgage subsidies and stupid road building.

Q. Is it simply a matter of building in fire-prone areas? Are there other issues (fire load management, focus on fire suppression rather than forest management) that are to blame for these fires?

Not to blame—but there are means to diminish the likelihood of loss of life when fire comes where people already are.

Q. Some have claimed that logging and clear-cutting in our forests are good ways to prevent wildfires—that is, by removing some of the potential load the threat goes down. Is that factual?

Logging goes after big stems in remote places. The fireload is small stuff, close to houses, and unattractive to commerce—except to the fire-industrial complex after fires break out.

Q. How would a national flame zone atlas work?

Just download the satellite data and have the governmental units with police power buy the results from any one of several firms, and make it available.

Q. Should we be focusing so much of our time looking for climate change’s role in these fires? Is there a simpler, more immediate explanation?

Sure – global warming and regional drying matter, and are accelerating the pace at which the people-in-danger problem – and that, not fire, is the problem — is moving north and east.

Q. In closing, what was your reaction when you first heard or saw news of the fires in California? Is this a disaster on scale with Katrina, just unfolding slower?

Disasters are measured by the number of people they hurt — not by the natural events that occur. The difference that struck me first was that Katrina could not possibly have been originated by a malevolent human, and fires afflicting dangerous settlement often are. The question becomes: What do benevolent people do to match the effects of the malevolent?

How hard are we working to keep matters from getting worse — meaning, what are we doing to reduce the landrush into danger by reducing the current subsidies encouraging that landrush?