Australia's stay and defend approach: up in smoke?
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The idea goes deeper, though, than rugged western individualism. It's more about personal responsibility: If a person chooses to live in remote, fire-prone areas (basically, the entire American and Canadian west), should he or she expect Smokey Bear and the cavalry to arrive the minute smoke appears on the horizon?Skip to next paragraph
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This is going to be an increasingly important question – and increasingly complicated, following the weekend's devastation in Australia – according to an interview I conducted in 2007 with fire experts and an author of a research paper on the soaring costs and risks associated with wildfire in the American west.
Attracted by the clean air, open spaces, relatively low costs of living, and access to recreation, western states have experienced boundless growth in recent years. Many newcomers come for the scenery, buying homes smack dab in the forest, despite decades of data showing these areas to be prone to fire.
But with federal firefighting forces at the ready, these homeowners have little cause for concern, according to Ray Rasker, an economist and executive director of Headwaters Economics, of Bozeman, Mont. "Local counties can permit subdivisions without having to incur most of the costs of fighting fires," Rasker said in an earlier interview. "The firefighting costs are paid by the national taxpayer. It amounts to a subsidy, basically."
With global warming, the fires are only expected to worsen in coming years. Melting snowpack no longer keeps forests moist through dry summer months. Beetles that were once killed off by winter deep freezes are propagating and creating ever-growing swaths of dead, easily ignited trees. "We're only starting to see the magnitude of the problem," Rasker said.
According to a study by Rasker's group, about 14 percent of private land surrounding national forests in the West has been developed and an estimated $1 billion is now being spent annually by federal land management agencies to protect homes in these areas. Expect both numbers to continue to rise, Rasker said.
"We're asking firefighters to risk their lives to protect homes," Rasker said. "If you build in harm's way, you should at least be responsible for that."
Which is exactly what Australia had been doing. The current stay and defend policy includes a heavy component of prevention and education – without this, the death toll might have been even higher, experts say.
There's one idea, though, that no fire expert will reconsider: Nature always bats last.