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Forget What Smokey the Bear Told You

A study in the science journal Nature argues that, rather than focusing so intensely on fighting wildfires, we should learn to live alongside them.

by Shelby Kinney-Lang
Nov 6 2014, 11:30pm

Image via Flickr

These days, say scientists, we no longer live in Smokey the Bear's black-and-white world where humans can put a stop to catastrophic forest fires.

According to a study published in Nature on Thursday, while the knee-jerk reaction to fight wildfires head-on is important and necessary in many cases, it's not a sufficient strategy for protecting communities from the conflagrations that are blackening an increasing amount of the world's forests. People around the world who live in what's called the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) — those natural areas prone to wildfires where human settlement has also taken root — must learn to expect periodic fires and live alongside them.

"We've been trying to fight wildfires, but unlike other natural hazards, like earthquakes and floods, we're not trying to learn how to adapt to them," study co-author Tania Schoennagel, a researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, told VICE News. "So like for earthquakes, we build more stable buildings, for floods, we curb building in floodplains — we're not doing the same thing with wildfires."

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The study reviewed scholarly research from three areas of the world where major fire-related losses — including loss of life — have occurred in recent decades: the western United States, the Mediterranean basin in Europe, and across Australia. The international group of authors draws from expertise in the social and natural sciences. 

Schoennagel points out that since 1990 the US has seen a three-fold increase in the number of houses that have burned and a four-fold increase in the number of firefighter fatalities. Yet the average number of acres burned by wildfires has only doubled in the same period, highlighting that property loss and human casualties are outpacing the increase in fire extent.

Pivoting away from fire suppression towards measures for adapting to fire will be necessary, say the researchers, as climate change threatens longer and hotter fire seasons and more people begin to live in wildland areas. 

The National Wildlife Federation projects that the overall area burned will double by late this century across 11 western states if the average summertime temperature increases 2.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah is likely to be particularly hard hit, says the organization.

Although the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management spend an estimated $3 billion a year on firefighting, 70 percent of homes in the WUI are privately owned, revealing a great, yet often overlooked, public subsidy for private-market real estate development.

'The billions spent on firefighting acts like a subsidy.'

Instead of focusing solely on fire suppression, the report recommends retrofitting vulnerable houses that aren't up to snuff with more fire-resistant designs. This might mean preventing embers from being swept into ventilation systems by closing up vulnerable gaps or replacing wood shingles on rooftops that might easily catch fire with material less likely to burn. The report suggests managing potentially flammable fuels surrounding homes by clearing vegetation completely or planting types that have high moisture content. 

The report also encourages establishing household and community evacuation plans and in some cases training people who refuse to evacuate or those who can't leave their homes safely on how to cope and keep themselves alive.

Although private property owners play a role in mitigating fire damage, the heart of the study argues for a rupture in how we think about wildfire — it's not something that can be eliminated, therefore we must learn how to live sustainably alongside it. Just as there are planning and zoning measures enacted for development in floodplains, or architectural methods aimed at protecting property and life from hurricanes, the study suggests retooling our relationship to wildfires by planning for their inevitability.

"A lot of us realized that land-use planning is really at the heart of the problem, at least at the WUI part of the problem — which really is the key aspect here we need to address," lead author Max Moritz, a Fire Ecology and Management specialist at the University of California at Berkeley's College of Natural Resources, told VICE News. "A more intelligent and carefully designed planning process for where and how we build could go a huge distance for getting ahead of the curve and for getting us out of this problem."

Nineteen firefighters died fighting a wildfire in Yarnell Hill, Arizona on June 30.

The Bozeman, Montana-based research organization Headwater Economics came to similar conclusions as the Nature study. In a recent whitepaper the group argues for detailed fire-hazard maps that could be used when considering development. These maps could help set insurance rates that adequately reflect the risk of fire and help property owners understand that they live in fire prone environments. 

Both groups point out that when the federal government expends money on wildfire suppression and controlled burns that mimic naturally occurring fires and cut down on the amount of brush that could fuel a fire, they're effectively condoning development in fire-risk areas. The Headwater paper suggested rerouting some federal money to local governments so communities could spearhead fire mitigation efforts, the thinking being that if communities understood the costs of fighting wildfires they are more likely to adopt more strict building codes. 

"If you transferred some of the firefighting costs to local government, that would incentivize them to think twice about a new subdivision they proposed," Headwater Economic's Ray Rasker, and co-author of the whitepaper, told Vice News. "It doesn't mean you don't develop, but it means you develop in a much smarter way than they are doing so far."

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"So basically the federal government has said it's OK to build anywhere, because we'll send people in to risk their lives to save your homes and the cost will be paid for by the taxpayer," he added.

That mindset can lead to catastrophic results, as when nineteen fire fighters were killed in 2013 attempting to protect homes from the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona.

"In effect, the billions spent on firefighting acts like a subsidy," Mortiz told VICE News. "It's sort of this perverse, economic incentive, really, that makes these inherently hazardous landscapes just marginally safer. But over the long run, it's basically increasing the chance of a catastrophic event."

Follow Shelby Kinney-Lang on Twitter: @ShelbKL

Image via Flickr