The recent fires in California offer lessons that every Westerner should pay attention to.
First, forest reduction projects will not preclude large wildfires or save communities when there is low humidity, high temperatures, drought and high winds. Just as tropical rainforests thrive on rain that we can’t stop, Western ecosystems thrive on wildfire, and it is climate and weather that drives large wildfires, not “fuels.” We cannot log our way out of growing wildfire-induced home losses.
Second, homes burning down can be prevented in most cases by the implementation of fire-wise policies. Things like metal roofs, removal of grass by homes and other measures can go a long way toward keeping a home intact even in the face of a major wildfire.
However, these policies must be implemented at the community level. If your neighbor’s home is a fire trap even if you have done all the proper fire wise policies, your house is vulnerable.
Structure fires are much hotter and burn longer than a forest fire, and in many cases, what you find is a single home ignites and then other homes catch on fire like dominoes falling. This is exactly what occurred in California communities like Santa Rosa.
I have visited many of the communities around the West where wildfires have consumed houses, including Summerhaven above Tucson, Ariz.; Walden Canyon by Colorado Springs, Colo.; Wenatchee in Wash.; Lake Arrowhead near San Bernardino, Calif.; South Lake Tahoe, Calif., and others, including your own fire in Los Alamos. It’s always the same thing. What you find is burnt-out foundations surrounded by green trees. What this means is that embers, not a wall of flames, set individual homes on fire, which then ignited their neighbor’s homes.
If you want to save your community, you must have mandatory fire-wise policies that are enforced. Many mountain towns are vulnerable to the same situation as has burned Santa Rosa and other communities in California. If a fire ignites in the surrounding mountains with high winds, embers will rain down on the homes. If these homes are not fire-proofed, entire neighborhoods could burn to the ground.
The antagonism to government policies and regulations, combined with the “it’s my property and I can do whatever I want” sentivment, is an impediment to rational and reasonable policies. But when your neighbors fail to protect their homes, they are demonstrating a lack of community value and a selfish attitude toward the rest of the town.
Beyond changing policies about fire-proofing communities, the other major change we need is to recognize the growing threat of wildfire is caused in part by warming climate. The ultimate cause of growing wildfire effects on communities is not due to fire suppression, lack of logging or other excuses given by the timber industry and its lackeys in Congress.
Climate change is real. Wildfires are here. The most immediate thing we can do as Westerners is fire-safe our communities and towns. Next, elect people who pay attention to climate science.
Finally, realize that wildfire in the forest is a good thing that maintains healthy forest ecosystems. Many wildlife species depend on snags and down wood for their survival. Snag forests that result from high severity fires are essential to many species that live in mortal fear of green forest.
Wildfire in your neighborhood is a bad thing that can be reduced or prevented with reasonable building codes and mandatory fire-wise regulations.
I will be giving a talk titled “Wildfire and Forest Health, Myths and Reality” at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at Body of Santa Fe. The address is 333 W. Cordova Road. Please come join the discussion on this critical topic and help preserve the Santa Fe National Forest. This event is free and open to the public.
George Wuerthner has published 38 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He lives in Bend, Ore.