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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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There is agreement on one goal – the Oklahoma-land-rush-style sprint into the WUI needs to be reconsidered, says a growing number of analysts, and if not by choice, then perhaps by changing laws or insurance practices.

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At the core, the question is, At what cost is property defended?

"As a society we need to define what is indefensible space so we don't have any more Yarnell Hill fires," says Professor Minnich. Building a full community of houses with watered lawns and concrete streets is one thing, he says, but isolated wood structures in forest and brush areas – such as those consumed by the Colorado Black Forest fire – is entirely different.

"I don't see why society has to protect such structures at huge money cost to taxpayers and loss of life to firefighters," he adds.

There is no other natural process on earth – floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes – that humans think they can stop, he notes. Higher insurance costs should be borne by those choosing to live in such areas and not contribute to higher costs for everyone else, he says. Just as with hurricane zones and flood plains, homeowners should know well ahead of time what they are opting for.

Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and coauthor of a recent report on the rising cost of wildfire protection, says WUI protection efforts have largely concentrated on reducing fuels and making structures safer from fires.

But, he says, further actions to mitigate the costs of building in fire-prone areas could include federal assistance for local planning and eliminating the mortgage interest tax deduction for homes in the WUI. State and local governments could also use local zoning ordinances, building codes, and setback requirements.

In 1991, firefighting took up 13 percent of the Forest Service budget. Last year it consumed 40 percent. "The federal government could act unilaterally, such as by requiring federal wildfire insurance for any WUI development near federal lands," Professor Miller says.

There is some progress at the local level. The national Firewise Communities Program – which rolled out in the fall of 2002 – offers workshops and training both online and in person for homeowners and fire professionals alike. Individual topics include how to use fire-retardant materials, create space between plants and homes, and clear brush.

The program has been credited with some success. When the Idaho mountain hamlet of Secesh Meadows was threatened by the raging East Zone Complex fire in the fall of 2007, the flames reached the edge of the community and then dropped to the ground, immediately losing their intensity for lack of fuel, which had been cleared away. The fire crept along the ground right up to people's homes and then stopped.

Today, the Firewise program counts more than 700 active communities in 40 states. This voluntary program has documented more than $76 million spent on local wildfire safety actions in communities since 2003.

The Ready, Set, Go! Program, managed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, tries to improve communication between fire departments and the residents they serve. Launched nationally in March 2011 at the Wildland-Urban Interface Conference, the program helps fire departments teach individuals who live in areas at high risk of wildfires how to best prepare themselves and their properties against the threat.

Now in its second year nationally, the program has more than 500 member departments and agencies in 46 states. It continues to work alongside existing public education efforts, like Firewise. Its strength, observers say, is overcoming years of unconscious habit.

"It's a process of taking new concepts and getting used to them," says Nick Harrison, a staff forester at Texas A&M University in College Station. "Seeing how they work in practice is always good," he says.

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