As homes burn, questions of culpability

More homeowners are moving deeper into Western forests, stretching firefighting forces.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Kevin Ryan sits in his office, fidgeting with a photograph.

The image shows three homes in Los Alamos, N.M. Two are little more than cinders, charred by fires that burned out of control in May. The third, which was saved, is getting a new roof - of highly combustible wooden shingles.

"Apparently this homeowner did not learn the lesson that his neighbors now know," says Mr. Ryan, a Forest Service ecologist.

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As US firefighting efforts come under unprecedented scrutiny, with hundreds of homes from California to South Dakota destroyed by blazes, the photo frames a central question this fire season: Who bears the greatest responsibility for protecting houses built in fire-prone forests?

Fire officials like Ryan see more and more people moving deeper into the forest - sometimes putting up tinder-box houses - and wonder what they can do to head off destruction.

Yet others note that strict building codes are already in place in some states, and claim that the government is not doing enough to keep the flames at bay.

Already this season, officials say, a disproportionate number of firefighters and resources have been diverted to save homes on the fringes of the wildland frontier. It's a trend that's raising awareness about the challenges presented by Americans' outward push into places where, until recently, humans have never lived in such large numbers.

"The context in which wildfires are portrayed almost always revolves around tragedy and it's couched in terms of the evil pryo-demon coming out from the forest and gobbling up homes," Ryan says. "The truth is we know how to build homes that won't burn but we choose not to do it."

This season's toll

So far, more than 410,000 acres have burned in the northern Rockies with new fires igniting from dry lightning strikes every day. The most acreage has burned in the Great Basin region, where almost 700,000 acres of grass-scrub brush and forest have been charred in parts of Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. More are burning in Nevada.

By the time the Western fire season finally ends with snowfall in October and November, federal experts say the cost of battling the blazes could easily surpass $1 billion.

"If the present direction continues to play out, as many believe it will, this season could exceed anything we've seen in living memory," says Orville Daniels, a retired federal forester who served as supervisor of the Lolo National Forest in Montana.

"Even with the better equipment we have, the consequences of the current fires would be more far reaching that those in 1910," he says, referring to fires that quadrupled in size in just 36 hours and burned 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana alone.

Across the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, numerous front yards are marked with red streaks of slurry - a special fire retardant dropped by low-flying bombers to thwart the advance of flames.

While the scenes attest to heroic firefighting efforts, they also tell a stark story. The very forest which attracted the homeowners is gone. Only the blackened spires of lodgepole and ponderosa pine remain.

Despite having better scientific information at their disposal through state-of-the-art tools and infrared satellite cameras, fire experts still are overwhelmed. While more homeowners move farther into the forest, the size of the national firefighting force is shrinking and Congress is spending less for civilian-unit training.

"We have far better science behind what we're doing, but the situation is so much more complex than it was a decade or two ago," Ryan says. "For one thing, there weren't 600,000 homes out in the middle of the fuel matrix."

As a result of the destruction of the current fire season, some experts are calling for new scrutiny of homebuilding in fire-prone areas. Mr. Daniels says there are places where people shouldn't build. If they insist, they should do so at their own risk.

Like others, he also says communities need to prepare their residents for the advent of wildfires in the same way that other communities prepare for hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes.

"The federal government ... is expected to pay for firefighting and be held responsible for any property damage, [but] the real burden for protecting homes and other structures should fall with individuals and local communities," says Stephen Pyne, author of several critically acclaimed books on wildfire.

The first line of defense begins with the decisions homeowners make in how they build their structures, and how vigilant they are in minimizing burnable vegetation in their yards.

While touring the front lines last week, Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana said more needs to be done to educate the public about the risks of building dream homes in forests that have regularly burned.

Rules on the books

States have building codes aimed at minimizing these risks, but the regulations vary widely from state to state. Montana, for example, largely lacks tough regulations, while California is seen as a Western leader.

Beyond that, experts say, counties can address fire danger through planning and zoning. The federal government can also take a tougher stand in determining what kinds of fire damage will qualify for disaster relief. And insurance companies can demand more discrimination from their clients in where they build - just as they pushed for more-progressive fire codes in cities.

The Forest Service has tried to take its own preventive actions. It has proposed spending more than $800 million a year over the next 15 years to reduce combustible brush and fallen trees through small human-ignited fires, vigorous brush removal, and light logging.

But Ryan thinks of the homeowner in Los Alamos who put wooden shingles back on his roof.

"People don't realize the danger of living close to a forest," he says. "Even if we stop a wildfire at the public-lands boundary, a subdivision half a mile away may be ignited because the residents didn't clear brush or put shakes on their roof."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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