The tragedy of the Camp Fire in California was not an anomaly. The Camp Fire was merely the loudest bell tolling for the dead and soon to be dead, victims of vicious and suppression-resistant wildfires coming to a town near you across the western United States.
Chief of the United States Forest Service Vicki Christiansen promised to use “every tool” available to her and her agency to reduce wildfire impacts to wildlands and communities. She will not succeed in resolving the most intractable problems. The problem is beyond her ken and beyond the capabilities of her agency.
At its heart, the issue of increasingly fatal wildfires is our collective failure to regulate ourselves for our mutual safety. We will not allow local agencies, governments and states to institute regulations and ordinances that would have real impact on fatality fires; things like stringent building codes and requiring developers to FireWise landscapes before being allowed to build houses.
Chief Christiansen does not have authority to promulgate and institute regulations that would solve the human/wildfire interface problem in the Red Zone. She and her gallant band of firefighters will wage a lonely fight on the fringes of our commons to quell that which cannot be quelled.
Fires in the open forest with no people around, like Rocky Mountain National Park where millions of dead trees on hundreds of thousands of acres will be cleansed in searing fires, will be matters of idle interest and visual wonder. Fires in neighborhoods that we allowed to be built with no oversight are matters of life and death.
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As with many such policy conundrums where perceived unalienable rights would be infringed by government intervention, we are content to continue to punt the ball down the field to the next generation. The chief cannot affect that perception though she must try.
Chief Christiansen says there are a billion acres at risk of catastrophic fire. It’s an interesting number. It’s about five times more than the total acreage of the 192 million-acre national forest system, begging the question of what the chief intends to do with the acres she neither manages nor controls. Let’s view it as a warning from the principal lookout on our forest walls that hell is coming and we should try to prepare.
It’s not an idle observation on her part. Ask Paradise, California and any town that has faced the flaming front and ember storm with no real chance at defense beyond a thin yellow line of firefighters and a handful of aircraft.
Driving along the magnificent Rocky Mountain Front Range last week I was struck once again at the glory and beauty, the awe and inspiration of our interior West. I was also terrified. Just outside of Lyons, Colorado are neighborhood after neighborhood of new housing developments nestled in pines so thick there will be no opportunity to defend the new homes when fire comes. In just 35 years, the number of new homes in the Red Zone has tripled and quadrupled, and any insight provided by the Camp Fire or the Malibu Fire were utterly lost on government officials, private developers, and home buyers. In mile after mile for 300 miles, there would literally be no way for firefighters to stop even moderate fires. Thousands of homes will burn, year after year, and nothing Vicki Christiansen can do will change that bleak picture.
It usually takes six or ten deaths at railroad crossings before we install crossing gates and warning signs. I don’t know how many of us have to die before we bring some semblance of sanity to the Red Zone.