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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.

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"It sounds good on paper, but the problem is keeping wildfires, like grizzlies, in their preserve," says Pyne. "When flames are rushing up a hillside and actually threatening real homes with children and backyards, no one is going to let them burn."

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Nonetheless, over the decades, policies have begun to shift. A multifold approach to fire management was formally enshrined in the 1995 Wildland Fire Policy, which was adopted by all federal agencies that manage America's public lands. "Wildland fire, as a critical natural process, must be reintroduced into the ecosystem," the policy states.

Practical changes at every level have been slow in coming, but new national programs such as Firewise, and Ready, Set, Go! – both aimed at changing zoning and building practices by communities and individual homeowners – have combined with efforts by Congress and the many agencies tasked with fire management to encourage flexibility in fire management.

Forest Service head Thomas Tidwell articulated this approach in a memo this spring.

"We will successfully manage fire on the landscape," the memo states, "and fully evaluate risks with a broad perspective and consideration for the people we serve and landscapes we protect." He defines success as "safely achieving reasonable objectives with the least firefighter exposure necessary."

A multitiered approach to fire management is not an easy task, Mr. Tidwell notes in an e-mail to the Monitor: "We do have a set amount of expertise in this country, but when we get a wildfire season like we did last year, we have to take some steps to manage just how much fire we can have on the landscape," he says.

That means firefighting agencies managing wildland fires, which often burn for long periods of time, have to make sure they have enough fire suppression assets to take "appropriate action if fires being managed for restoration objectives suddenly start burning in undesirable ways, as well as conduct initial attack on new fires, and suppress fires threatening lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources," says Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones via e-mail.

In response to the spiraling costs of fighting fires – since 2000 the national price tag tripled to $3 billion – Congress passed the FLAME Act in 2009, requiring the creation of a comprehensive national fire policy including the complex assortment of federal, state, and local agencies responsible for wildfire management.

The Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, launched in 2010 and still in development, divides the country into three regions – West, South, and Northeast. This division spotlights one of the challenges in creating a single fire policy – the differences from one region to another.

"Getting fire back onto the land is what we need to do," says Max Moritz, professor of environmental science, policy, and management at the University of California, Berkeley. But different terrains require different strategies, he says, and that's where administering tactics becomes problematic.

Low-intensity burns might work well at higher elevations, he says, but in the low-lying scrubby landscapes, such as are common in California, known as chaparral terrain, certain seeds germinate with the kinds of high-intensity fires that come along only once or twice in a century. Frequent, low-intensity burns can be counterproductive for landscape restoration in such areas, he points out.

"That is where we get into nitty-gritty disagreements between scientists, and that's where it's difficult.... It's not such a simple message," Professor Moritz says.

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