Saturday, September 1

Where Fires Meet Development

It's still fire season in Montana, a particularly harsh one this year. Before moving here I held to the simple notion, probably instilled in me from the Smokey the Bear of my childhood, that the reason we fought forest fires was to protect the forests. Fires are bad, so we must put them out.

From talking to people around here, I've gathered that I was a few decades behind the curve. It's actually much more complex than that. Fires serve a vital role in replenishing the ecosystem and need to run their course on a cyclical basis. Earlier efforts at absolute suppression made matters worse by artificially allowing for the build-up of fuel and intensifying the inevitable fire. It turns out that the primary reason we fight fires today is to protect houses and other human structures.

That's great. I know that I want my house protected. But as our cities in the West continue to decentralize, the line between development and forest, called the "wildland-urban interface", continues to grow in size and shape. This tends to stretch the resources for protection pretty thin.

The Missoulian ran this story last week:

"Fighting wildfires will continue to cost the government a billion dollars or more annually as more houses are built in wooded, rural areas, the nation's top forestry official said Wednesday.Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said 8.4 million houses were built in wildfire-prone areas during the 1990s, complicating firefighting efforts and driving costs to a record $1.4 billion last year."

You can't say that's made fire seasons more severe, but you can say unequivocally that it's made firefighting more expensive,” Rey said.The following map is of the wildland-urban interface based on 2000 census data. It's from a University of Wisconsin study. Click on for the full size.
One of the original purposes for the creation of consolidated urban areas was protection. Residents in ancient cities needed to live within city walls or they would be subject to endless raids by bandits or enemy city-states. Since walls could not be strewn willy-nilly all across the landscape, this need for protection encouraged higher density.

Today in North America we hardly have to worry about bandits hiding deep within the forests. But we are still not without need for protection.

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