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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 , Staff writer

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

"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."

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.

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.

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.

Some communities turn to new practices only after tragedy, he notes, pointing to Possum Kingdom, a rural community west of Fort Worth, Texas. After wildfires consumed 148,000 acres and destroyed 205 homes and two churches in 2011, residents turned to Mr. Harrison and his team for advice.

"It's really nice to live out with these beautiful lands, but what people have to understand is fire is part of that life," says volunteer Possum Kingdom fire chief Ronnie Ranft, whose house escaped the flames by a mere 900 feet. "You have to learn to live with it rather than expect to put it all out."

By hosting half-day gatherings with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and a variety of interagency fire departments, the fire experts and Possum Kingdom residents came up with a long list of things the homeowners could do: trim brush and trees around homes, eliminate air vents that suck burning embers into attics, and replace wooden trash-can enclosures and porches with stone.

The residents rewrote the community covenants to allow homeowners to trim foliage between houses more aggressively. And perhaps most important, a 20-foot-wide gravel ring was bulldozed around the entire community – not aesthetically pleasing, but designed to keep fires at bay.

Veteran firefighters point out that while such efforts are valuable, the relentless push of humanity into the WUI is exponentially complicating their work, forcing them to continually use new strategies. Just in the past five years, firefighters have started managing fires using a strategy called "point protection," says former firefighter Randy Eardly, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Firefighters can designate one target to defend, he says.

"Let's say you have a fire on the edge of the urban interface," he says. "We may [devote] the majority of our resources ... to protect that community while putting fewer resources on the fire, especially if that fire is accomplishing some good," such as burning off unwanted undergrowth.

Arizona State's Pyne says he's optimistic about the emergent national cohesive strategy.

"If it succeeds, it will serve as a fire constitution, a messy mechanism by which the hundreds of competing interests might work through the necessary compromises with some political legitimacy," he says. "We could move fire management beyond emergency response."

There's an emerging trend among firefighting agencies that are making their own internal adjustments, Pyne says, meaning they have learned to declare fire-vulnerable houses indefensible and to refuse to commit crews to some high-risk firescapes with limited values.

Pyne supports the hurricane/flood model: "You're warned. You board up the windows and either leave or stay. The fire blows through. The crews move back and hit hot spots. The community returns. In the case of natural landscapes, the mountain burns over."

Pyne and others see the pattern of disaster, grief, consciousness-raising, and hope, and note the outpouring of support for the fallen firemen in Arizona. The lone survivor of the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, Brendan Donough, was presented with a check for $400,000 July 8 to be distributed to families of the victims.

"But maybe this time we can make the political personal. We can fix what is within our hands," Pyne says. "We can look inside and ask if we are ready to have others pay the price for how we live on the land. We can at least pause and in a moment of silence listen to the still small voice that comes after the fire."

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