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Firefighting's new reality: not every house should be saved

Americans don't expect to stop hurricanes or floods – they cope with them. The same is increasingly true of firefighting, which is coping with decades of poor fire policy and an increasing number of homes in fire-prone areas. But the new strategy demands hard choices.

By Staff writer, Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / July 23, 2013

A firefighter looked out from his truck as a firefighting helicopter landed behind him while working the Carpenter 1 Fire in Kyle Canyon near Las Vegas, July 13.

John Locher/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP

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The devastating Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona, coupled with what is already Colorado's most destructive fire season, has put the nation's fire policy in sharp relief.

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While Arizona families are asking hard questions about what led to the deaths of 19 elite firefighters in one afternoon, those at the forefront of firefighting nationwide are struggling to create a comprehensive approach to fire that encompasses a multiplicity of concerns: political, economic, environmental, scientific, and firefighter safety.

Driving this debate is the effort at the most fundamental philosophical level to come to grips with one of nature's most elemental forces.

In practical terms, that has meant finding a way to let naturally occurring fires do the work that experts say they are meant to do. Perhaps most important, periodic small-scale fires are seen as instrumental in thinning out dry underbrush – lessening the fuel load, in firefighting parlance – so as to prevent the larger, deadlier, and more costly mega-blazes that increasingly have ravaged America's landscape.

"Other than paving over the entire world, we are not going to get rid of fire. It is fundamental to everything we do, not just some quirky thing out west," says Stephen Pyne, a professor of life sciences at Arizona State University who is just completing two books on the past 50 years of American fire management. "If we can't manage fire, we might as well resign from the great chain of being."

The American firefighting community, Professor Pyne notes, spent 50 years trying to convince the US public that forest fires should be suppressed immediately in all cases. "Now," he says, "we've spent the last 50 years trying to put some fires back in."

The policy reformation has come in stages. In 1968 the National Park Service renounced its so-called 10 a.m. policy (put all fires out by tomorrow morning) that sought to promote quick forest restoration. The US Forest Service did the same in 1978. A common federal policy was adopted in 1995.

America, however, is still reaping the effects of the earlier fire-suppression policy. These include the long-term buildup of biomass that fuels mega-fires, and perhaps most problematic, a countrywide surge in home-building in what is known as the wildland/urban interface, or WUI, that continues to this day, says Richard Minnich, a fire ecologist and a professor of earth sciences at the University of California, Riverside.

"We are increasingly building our homes ... in fire-prone ecosystems," agrees Dominik Kulakowski, adjunct professor of biology at Clark University Graduate School of Geography in Worcester, Mass. Doing that "in many of the forests of the Western US ... is like building homes on the side of an active volcano."

According to a 2005 report cited by the Forest Service, some 32 percent of US housing units and 10 percent of all land with housing are situated in the WUI.

The presence of so many homes in wilderness areas has made it hard for firefighters schooled in the potential benefits of fire to translate theory into practice, Pyne says. While letting some fires burn has worked for the Forest Service in some high-altitude areas of the Sierra Nevada, he says, it becomes more problematic at lower levels where communities are built.

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