Fire Comes With the Territory

Ray Ring was a primary contributor to the High Country News 2003 "Fire in the West" special report.

Among the spectacles swirling up from Southern California's wildfires, we have Republican Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger -- a man who rose from bodybuilding to movies to politics on the principle of self-reliance -- beseeching Washington (and all taxpayers) to cushion Californians from the toll of the flames.

And we have Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat supported by tree-hugging environmentalists, in the Senate chamber holding up a picture of expensive homes among tinder-dry pines, demanding $760 million a year to remove such troublesome vegetation.

So the perfect firestorm of planetary forces -- prolonged drought and global warming, the natural tendency of chaparral to burn, a big accumulation of fuels, the Santa Anas -- will be followed inevitably by the perfect firestorm of political forces.

Property owners who have taken a hit, those who have lost loved ones, those whose businesses will suffer will look to lay blame. Their targets are plentiful -- developers who built in wrong places, dreamers who bought in and didn't take precautions, foresters and loggers who created thickets by dousing too many fires, environmentalists who obstruct solutions now, politicians who push their own agendas, governments that could never do enough, even the firefighters, whose tactics aren't always perfect. One desire almost all of them will have in common, though, is for the war against wildfires to continue. It began in the American West more than a century ago and still rages today, despite reams of evidence that fires are essential in nature, a primary shaper of plant and animal communities, encourager of diversity of species, the foremost recycler of nutrients.

But although we know that wildfire is for the most part natural and impossible to suppress, we seem incapable of disengaging from our war against it. We have built the world's largest firefighting force, an army of many thousands, equipped with helicopters and planes, engines and 'dozers. We've increased federal spending against wildfires sixfold since 1991 -- up to $2.3 billion this year and a planned $2.9 billion next year -- with about half that increase coming in the National Fire Plan, a behemoth that seeks not only to fight wildfires but also to reduce their fuel through thinning, pruning, raking and other "mechanical" treatments. This is touted as reform, but really it is more war, in that fire is still cast as the enemy.

If this were a Hollywood movie, it would be a sequel -- or worse, a tired franchise. Fire policy in the form of "Smokey and the Bandit #18," in which Smokey the Cop, equipped with shiny cruiser, flashing lights and siren, endlessly pursues the fast-driving trickster across the landscape. Only in real life, the victims are not stunt men who bounce back, and the damage to property and potentially to ecosystems is not special effects.

Yet despite so many years of chasing bandit flames, we continue to fall short of capturing or taming them. The current programs will probably also fall short. We'll never be able to cut down enough trees or clean up enough brush to control the outbreak of wildfires -- especially in Southern California's fast-growing, steep-sloped chaparral. We'll accomplish other, limited goals -- creating jobs, saving some neighborhoods temporarily, reelecting politicians who run for the war or against it -- but the effect on fire rhythms and behavior will be small, and the glorified yardwork will never replace the many roles of fire in the ecosystem.

There are ways we could break out of this cycle. We could expect the people who live in fire zones to take responsibility for their choices, we could end a long list of subsidies that includes road extensions, fire crews, insurance rates that don't reflect the specific risk, even federally backed fire-zone mortgages. We could get more realistic with regulations on how the fire zone is built in and landscaped, instead of the piecemeal, often weak regulations we have now. And we could accept wildfires, requiring prescribed burns, allowing lightning-ignited blazes to burn themselves out, as the seasonal price of living in the West. If we don't do that, we're stuck in sequel after sequel.

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