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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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.Skip to next paragraph
"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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