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Saturday, Jul 06 2013 11:36 PM

Change attitudes about fighting wildfires

By The Bakersfield Californian

On the matter of spreading civilization into the wildlands of the arid American West, it's time for us to get our priorities straight.

Like floods, earthquakes and tornadoes, wildfires are a reality of nature, and it is folly to hope that with technology and grit we can somehow eventually master them.

The deaths of 19 firefighters, killed last week fighting an advancing wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., was not inevitable. Not, that is, until we factor in the cockeyed priorities that drive our approach to home construction on this country's populated perimeters and in our collective attitude about fighting wildfires.

Wildland firefighters are instructed to protect human life first and property second. But no house is worth a firefighter's life. And yet the imperiled houses near Yarnell had been evacuated; no one's life was in danger except for those of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. In essence they died trying to save insurance companies from larger claim payouts. It never should have come to that.

Now, in the aftermath of that tragedy, some of the country's most noted wildfire experts, including Jimmie Rocha of the Lake Isabella-based Rio Bravo Hot Shots, have traveled to west-central Arizona to try to learn why these firefighters died. They will no doubt identify unpredictable gale-force winds and the firefighters' failure to recognize the changing conditions quickly enough. But the most useful conclusion they can draw will be this: Settling the outlands comes with risks that should not be laid at the feet of wildland firefighters. And this: Building homes out of kindling -- and then rebuilding them with kindling -- is a practice that demands reevaluation.

"Mitigation measures such as building with burn-resistant materials and clearing nearby vegetation are usually optional, making it nearly impossible for firefighters to safely defend communities," Crystal A. Kolden, a University of Idaho fire ecologist and former U.S. Forest Service firefighter, wrote last week in the Washington Post. "Meanwhile, since the federal government picks up most of the tab for firefighting, there's not much incentive for state and local agencies to regulate development."

California has tried to dissuade home-building on the perimeter by taxing it, but its CalFire fire prevention fee, adopted in 2011 and directed at homeowners in unincorporated areas of the state that don't have their own fire departments, has been overwhelmingly unpopular.

And so the steady stream of rural home construction in the tinderbox West continues. As Kolden reports, rural and low-density housing clusters that border state and federally owned wildlands have grown 50 percent since 1970. And although the practice is common almost everywhere in the U.S., more than 1 million new homes have been constructed in areas of high fire danger in California, Oregon and Washington in the past 23 years. Kern County, which has perhaps more rural, arid and substantially undeveloped land than any California county except San Bernardino, has a huge number of these homes.

Climate change will only exacerbate the issue. In the years to come we can expect more extreme weather, including longer droughts, which will only lead to more intense and frequent wildfires. Prescribed burning is a vital wildfire management technique; are we undertaking that strategy often enough? And, as Kolden suggests, national fire policies such as the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy ought to be continuously updated to reflect new, proven approaches in an evolving natural and economic environment.

Even the most conscientious application of science, law and strategy can't eradicate wildfire. In the end, nature always wins. The Yarnell fire was ignited by a lightning strike; there's nothing in our zoning laws or penal codes to address that.

All we can do is work toward responsible stewardship of the land we build on, accept that wildfire-vulnerable areas will inevitably burn and stop demanding that firefighters unnecessarily jeopardize their lives.

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