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Dust-Up

Fighting fire: What government does right, and where it goes wrong

William Stewart says individual communities should take more responsibility for protecting themselves. Adam B. Summers says the federal government does a poor job of reducing the fire danger on land it owns.

1:45 PM PDT, September 3, 2009

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Today's topic: What does government (local and state) do right about preventing and fighting wildfires? What does it do wrong?

'Stay and defend,' and other changes we should consider
Point: William Stewart

With news coverage of the fires, we continuously see the logistical prowess of California's firefighting agencies. After poor responses to big fires in Southern California in the 1970s, all of the state's fire agencies worked together to create a mutual aid system. This established a strict command system to make sure beforehand that the people in every dispatched fire engine -- even ones from hundreds of miles away -- knew exactly what job they were to do and had the best information and equipment. This model has been copied across the United States and is one of the best examples of what government does right about fighting wildfires.

In terms of prevention, several recently passed state laws require new homes built in fire-prone areas to be resilient enough to withstand all but the most intense wildfires. The development of these regulations took years to develop because all of the stakeholders were involved in developing a package each of them could support. Like many new building codes, these laws only apply to new homes, not existing homes.

There are several areas where state and local government has room for improvement. One issue is that local communities have to pay for additional fire-prevention measures, while the costs of actually fighting wildfires are essentially 100% covered with state and federal funds. This can significantly reduce local interest in supporting increased expenditures in prevention even if most voters could be convinced they had a 2-1 or 3-1 return on their investments. Nobody wants to pay more for services they do not know the value of or can get for free in some other way.

Just like expenditures and local control over spending on issues related to education and public safety, the use of a single Sacramento forum to decide the best deal for every community in California makes it difficult to tailor unique strategies for different communities. It is quite clear that Acton and Pasadena residents have different views on how to respond to wildfires in their backyards and possibly would have been willing to put in different amounts of "sweat equity" into prevention. Unfortunately, these types of issues often only come up during big fires -- not the best time for reasoned discussion.

Related to this issue is what I see as a lack of exploring different options for neighborhood-level training and preparation. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Fire Perimeters map graphically illustrates how often fires have hit Southern California and the rest of the state.

Problems with "evacuation fatigue" are common in both hurricane and fire emergencies across the nation. We have seen this again with the current fire. Unlike the United States, Australia promotes a "leave early or stay and defend approach" to wildfires, which places a far greater emphasis on neighborhood organizations to undertake rigorous self-training on vegetation management and methods for able-bodied people to protect their homes during a wildfire. We have not invested much in exploring when and where this approach could have value in Southern California or in other highly flammable landscapes. I believe this is an area where we could improve the ability of many neighborhoods to "live with fire."

William Stewart is a forestry specialist at UC Berkeley.

Bad government policies make fires more dangerous
Counterpoint: Adam B. Summers

Bill,

While logistics and coordination among state and local agencies seem to have improved since the disastrous fire seasons of 2003 and 2007, there certainly is still room for improvement. I would also note that while you and I both made the case for greater use of private-sector firefighting services in Wednesday's posts, this is not to diminish the efforts of government-employed firefighters in fighting the wildfires.

I agree with you about the incentives of governments to focus more on fighting wildfires after they crop up than addressing the problem through preventive measures. Focusing more on action -- or, more accurately, reaction -- than prevention is a typical bureaucratic response. The goal seems to be "fighting fires," when it should be managing government-owned land to prevent or minimize wildfire damage. Unfortunately, fighting fires is politically a sexier aspect of the job -- it is more tangible to voters, who can see the news stories of brave firefighters battling the flames to save homes, and politicians can say, "See what we're doing with your tax dollars!"

Simply put, the federal government manages its lands poorly. It neglects to build firebreaks and conduct controlled burns before wildfires break out and allows underbrush and other tinder to build up -- in some cases, for 40 to 60 years -- which makes the fires all the more severe when they hit. For example, a Los Angeles city inspector in Tujunga related how the federal government failed to respond to requests to clean out brush on open lands. The federal agency claimed that it needed to conduct a study and prepare an environmental impact report before taking any action. Environmental policies and regulations that encourage leaving forests, canyons and woodlands in their "natural" state and prevent the clearing of trees and brush that serve as fuel for the fires only make matters worse. This red tape and bureaucratic nonsense leads to more destruction of property and lives.

Another disastrous government policy is the subsidization of fire insurance. In 1968, California created the Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan to be a fire insurance plan of last resort and required all insurers doing business in the state to participate in the insurance pool. This encourages the construction of homes in overly risky, fire-prone areas and is unfair to those who buy insurance in non-fire-prone areas, who must pay higher premiums to subsidize FAIR Plan participants, as well as to taxpayers across the state who have to pay for efforts to save these homes when fires do take place. A true free market in fire insurance would allow insurers to set premiums based on the true value of the fire risk involved and would allow homebuyers to make their purchase decisions accordingly. Some may be priced out by the high cost of insurance in extremely risky areas, and some areas may be uninsurable entirely, but those costs are high for a reason, and they should not be ignored.

Public officials seem to spend an awful lot of time holding news conferences in front of television cameras to offer each other congratulations on the efforts they all are making and too little time providing accurate, real-time information to the public to help them make decisions about how to react to the fires. With resources such as the Internet, satellite pictures and other technology at its disposal, government should be able to provide residents with up-to-date information about exactly where the fire is, and where it is headed at the moment, to help them make better preparations to flee or defend their homes. Yet communication is still lacking, and there always seems to be problems with government emergency notification systems. For example, "The county's new mass emergency notification system failed to inform residents about the status of the fire or evacuation orders," L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich wrote in a resolution. "It was reported to my office that an erroneous evacuation order was announced by the mass emergency notification broadcast system to the community of La Crescenta."

On a related note, as you allude to in your discussion of Australia's approach to wildfires, government should dispose of mandatory evacuation orders. This is particularly important in more suburban areas where the threat is not so much a raging inferno running through the neighborhood as it is falling embers, which can be combated fairly easily to keep homes from going up in flames. Indeed, many homeowners that defied evacuation orders in recent fires were able to save their homes -- and even neighbors' homes -- without suffering harm or necessitating the diversion of firefighting resources to rescue them. In any case, America was founded on the principle that one has the rights to defend his life, liberty and property, and these rights should not be infringed.

Adam B. Summers is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.