Living in the West's Tinderbox

Much of the West long has been a natural tinderbox. But a multiyear drought - with its low humidity, high temperatures, and dry grass and brush, not to mention bark beetles that kill trees - has been fueling more deadly wildfires.

The earlier-than-usual fires in southern California this week - the two largest of which already have forced a thousand people from their homes - are a reminder of the need for greater attention on fire prevention by residents and government.

Last year's unprecedented fires killed 22 people, burned some 750,000 acres, and destroyed over 3,600 homes in California alone.

Houses in vulnerable areas need strong regulation codes for design and landscaping - and the codes need better enforcement. Residents living in the urban-wildland "interface," as it's called, must build more fire buffers around structures, and upgrade homes with retardant materials. They should have roofs that are flame-resistant, for instance, and regularly cut back underbrush. (The website firewise.org offers a helpful to-do list for residents.)

For budget-strapped states, coping with another severe fire season will no doubt be challenging. Many National Guard members, who have served as firefighters, are now in Iraq.

In the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative, some $230 million is allocated for reducing hazardous fuel - meaning anything that promotes fire - this year. But more than the current 60 percent slated for such controlled burning should be targeted toward wildfire-prone land that lies close to communities.

At least one scientist notes forests that were healthy when they held 50 trees per acre decades ago now are choked by as many as 500 per acre. Prescribed burns in forests in the spring and fall, if kept under control, can help reduce wildfires, and improve plant and animal life.

Last summer, the head of the US Forest Service, Mark Ray, said, "We're going to experience some significant fire years for the foreseeable future." With such a warning, Americans in the West must work more diligently to better foil the potential for fires.

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