As the recent forest fire near Lake Tahoe in California is being controlled, after a great loss of property, there will be the inevitable cry that these wild fires a being caused by, or made worse by global warming. Once again there will be the finger pointing and the blame game going on. The Forest Service will be accused of neglect. The Federal Government will be accused of under-funding and catering to the "big lumber companies". And of course anyone burning fossil fuels anywhere in the world is to blame for global warming.
All of this of course is nonsense. There have always been wild fires, and there always will be. As the following article clearly explains, what has changed is the millions of people moving into our forests and putting themselves and their dwellings in mortal danger. Just like building on a flood plain, below sea level (New Orleans), or on the beach in a hurricane-prone area, it is people to blame, not the weather, or "climate change".
Of course the climate changes, it always has and always will. The irony of all of this stupidity is the people making these poor decisions then expect "big brother" (the Government, i.e. taxpayers) to protect them, and help them rebuild.
We should be getting smarter, with all of our education and availability of information, but unfortunately that does not seem to be the case.
At Your Peril
On Fringe of Forests, Homes and Wildfires Meet
Jim Wilson/The New York Times
By JESSE McKINLEY and KIRK JOHNSON
Published: June 26, 2007
COLEVILLE, Calif. — Lori and Don Morris had just started unpacking the boxes this month in their new dream house — four acres, national forest view, wide open land at their doorstep — when a wildfire raced down the stark bluffs over this high-desert town near the Nevada border.
Lori Morris of Coleville, Calif., stood on a hillside overlooking her home, which was spared by a wildfire that devoured 1,100 acres nearby.
More than 300 federal firefighters from as far away as Montana arrived, battling heat, 60-mile-an-hour wind gusts and flames bolting through 1,100 acres of bone-dry sagebrush and juniper. The Morrises, along with 200 other residents, watched helplessly as, miraculously, their homes were spared.
“Both of us were aware that these things happen,” said Ms. Morris, 47, as she looked out the window to the charred hillside. “We just didn’t think it would happen this fast.”
A new generation of Americans like the Morrises, in moving to places perched on the edge of vast, undeveloped government lands in the West, are living out a dangerous experiment, many of them ignorant of the risk.
Their migration — more than 8.6 million new homes in the West within 30 miles of a national forest since 1982, according to research at the University of Wisconsin — has coincided with profound environmental changes that have worsened the fire hazard, including years of drought, record-setting heat and forest management policies that have allowed brush and dead trees to build up.
“It’s like a tsunami, this big wave of development that’s rolling toward the public lands,” said Volker C. Radeloff, a professor of forest ecology and management at the University of Wisconsin. “And the number of fires keeps going up.”
But now federal agencies at the front lines of defending these new communities from peril are starting to say enough is enough. The constellation of federally owned parks, forests and arid sagebrush fiefs in the lower 48 states is collectively about three-fourths the size of all the land east of the Mississippi River, and is becoming too expensive to protect with so many people pushing up against the fringes.
This spring, the United States Forest Service began warning state and local officials across the West that they would need to pick up more of the tab from the federal government, and do more to make homes less vulnerable to fire. About 45 percent of the Forest Service’s proposed budget for 2008 is designated for firefighting, compared with 13 percent in 1991. Last year, the agency spent $2.5 billion, a record, thinning fuels and fighting fires that burned 9.9 million acres, also a record.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘If you’re not going to do your part, we’re not going to risk our lives,’ ” said Stuart McMorrow, a forest-fuels expert with the North Tahoe Fire Protection District, which covers 31 square miles near Lake Tahoe.
“It’s coming to a head,” Mr. McMorrow said, “this notion that people move out to the woods and put themselves in dangerous situations.”
Costs are also spiraling up like smoke for states and other federal agencies.
Wyoming budgeted $1.2 million for its 2006 fire season, then ended up spending $30 million. California, braced for what fire officials have said could be one of the worst seasons in history this year, has set aside $850 million for wildfire suppression.
The Department of Interior, which includes the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, the country’s largest landlord, spent $424 million fighting fire last year. Early season firefights have cost $215 million already this year even before the traditionally worst months arrive.
The insurance industry, in the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Katrina, has also begun taking a much harder look at the places where people and trees meet, and is less willing to write policies for homeowners who do not meet a “wildfire checklist” by taking measures to protect their homes.
“Fire has emerged as more and more a megacatastrophic risk like we saw with Katrina,” said Carole Walker, the executive director of Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. “The financial exposure is huge, well into the billions.”
The result is a new tough-love approach from fire officials, where the soft and fuzzy reminders from Smokey Bear have given way to blunter assessments. The new rural Westerners, fire officials say and insurers increasingly demand, will have to start thinking more like the self-reliant Westerners of old.
That means clearing defensible spaces around homes and inspecting roofs and vents through which flying cinders can descend. Those measures protect homes, but also firefighters, since structures cleared of fuels are less dangerous to defend.
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All the while, federally owned public lands continue to attract more people as they evolve into something they were never intended to be: a real-estate amenity. As golf courses were to a past development wave, wild and scenic is to this one.
In Lake Tahoe, for example, glossy home magazines are filled with advertisements including cheery phrases like “adjacent to Forest Service land” and no mention of the fire risks.
“It’s like ocean frontage,” said Larry Swanson, an economist at the University of Montana in Missoula who studies public lands. “You would not have these high private property values without the public lands nearby, and the public lands are a huge part of the package that is driving the growth trends.”
Usually a summertime phenomenon, fire season has come early this year in many parts of the country, including Florida and Georgia. But it is in the West, where acres have always outnumbered humans, that the scale is greatest and the threat most acute.
Forests in the West are more prone to catastrophic fires than are Eastern ones, said David M. Theobald, a professor at Colorado State University who has analyzed population growth and fire patterns.
That puts a higher percentage of the new housing areas in severe-fire zones — more than 50 percent in California and Colorado, 47 percent in Montana and more than 65 percent in Washington and Oregon, according to a soon-to-be published paper by Mr. Theobald and a colleague, William Romme. In the 37 states east of the Rockies, only about 10 percent of the new rural housing areas are in so-called high-fire zones.
Drought and the possible effects of climate change on the seasons have added their own vehement kick. In California, Nevada, Idaho and Montana, officials are prepared for a devastating fire year. Wildfires erupted throughout the winter.
“We had fires every month,” said Joe DuRosseau, division chief of special operations for the fire department in Reno, Nev., which fought a 750-acre fire west of town during the last week of May. “It’s a very dry year, and the fuels are extremely dry.”
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has asked for additional firefighting personnel, and officials worry that this summer could rival 2003, when fires caused more than $2 billion in damage, including 5,000 homes that burned in San Diego County.
Set for Battle
People like Robert A. Harrington, Montana’s state forester at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, are haunted by the possibility of a year like 1910, when devastating fires in the northern Rockies could be not stopped. There are similar fears in more heavily populated areas like Lake Tahoe.
On Monday, in Lake Tahoe firefighters battled a fire that had destroyed 160 homes.
“On a good weekend there’s a couple million people in and around the Tahoe area, with ingress and egress along Interstate 80, essentially one way in and out,” said George D. Gentry, the executive officer of California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection. “Imagine a conflagration starts and we have to evacuate people.”
North of the lake, where second homes pepper the 1.2 million acres of often remote wilderness, Forest Service firefighters train on roads, where turning a fire engine around is tricky even on a good day.
Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, a fire management officer there, said new housing in the far-flung fringe had made her job infinitely more challenging.
“There’s a housing area going up where the 80 and Highway 20 come together, with one-acre plots going at $1 million each,” Ms. Pincha-Tulley said. “I thought, ‘Oh great, this is just what I need.’ ”
Some residents in the high-risk areas worry that the federal government will be tempted to pass the problem along to local governments or homeowners.
“The federal government is there to protect the community from disasters,” said Ron Ehli, 50, a volunteer fire chief in Hamilton, Mont., an increasingly popular getaway in the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula.
“Where Florida might have hurricanes, or California earthquakes, we have wildfires,” Mr. Ehli said. “And the federal government should be there to protect us.”
Truth be told, the nation’s founders would probably be shocked that the government was still in the land or firefighting business. Land, as the early framers of the republic saw it, through legislation like the Homestead Act, was for settlement and farming, and especially for private ownership.
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But much of the western half of the United States did not cooperate. It was too steep, wooded, wild and dry to be tamed the way land was in the East. So hundreds of millions of acres became and remained public land, owned by the government. For most of the past century, the government’s policy of fighting fires on that land was single-minded: if it burns, put it out and figure the costs later.
So the natural fire cycle that cleans out the undergrowth and dying trees broke down, and combustibles began to mount. At the same time, the timber industry paid huge fees to the Forest Service to allow cutting of valuable forest sections that kept the firefighting budget afloat.
But that has changed. The timber money has slowed to a trickle in many national forests as companies have moved operations to places where trees grow faster, like the South, or gotten into the real estate business themselves, like the giant Plum Creek Timber Company in Montana, which owns hundreds of thousands of acres in the state.
Still, some Forest Service critics say the agency remains too dependent on timber sales and firefighting money from Congress. Together, suggest the critics — an odd-bedfellows coalition that includes local environmental groups like the Friends of the Bitterroot and free-market libertarians from the Cato Institute — the financing sources have skewed wildfire policy.
“We have now turned the fundamental function of the Forest Service into the fire service,” said Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona and chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
Mr. Grijalva said the knowledge by Forest Service administrators that Congress would pay for firefighting in defense of the nation’s public lands had led to a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of more and more money for firefighting.
Cuts in Spending
The surge in fire costs has in turn forced spending cuts in recent years in many other Forest Service programs, including campground maintenance, research, road repair and backcountry wilderness management.
“They’ve shifted the priorities,” Mr. Grijalva said. “And that puts property and people at risk, no question about it.”
Forest Service officials say they are used to being blamed. “Neither our strategy nor our priorities have changed,” said Mark E. Rey, under secretary for natural resources and the environment at the Department of Agriculture.
Safety of firefighters comes first, Mr. Rey said, then safety of residents, protection of structures and protection of resources.
What has changed, he said, is growth in the number of people living in harm’s way. That has bumped up costs because defending structures, Mr. Rey said, is more expensive than wilderness firefighting. At the same time, the knowledge of the woods and their dangers are fading as rural residents age and newcomers move in.
Ravalli County, Mont., for example, around the town of Hamilton, grew by 25 percent, to about 40,000 people, from 1995 to 2005. In the 2000 census, almost one-third of the residents said they had lived somewhere else five years earlier.
“I personally feel if they’re stupid enough to build their house with trees and stuff all around, it’s their dumb luck,” said Nancy Garness, 53, a baker at the Coffee Cup Cafe in Hamilton, who came to the area with her parents in the late 1950s when she was 4.
Insurance professionals say much the same thing.
“We all went through a period of, ‘write the policy and take the money,’ ” said Barry Whitmore, a State Farm Insurance agent in Hamilton. “Now we’ve got a wildfire checklist, and based on the answers, a home is either insurable or not insurable.”
In Coleville, a town of 400 people in the eastern Sierra Nevada, Ms. Morris and her husband are leaving little to chance.
Not much more than a wide spot in the road about 200 miles east of San Francisco, Coleville is showing signs of discovery, with a handful of new houses and real estate signs along the main road, which is also lined with cottonwoods and scrub brush.
Ms. Morris said it was love at first sight when she discovered the town a few months ago. The Morris abuts land owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
“There’s hundreds of miles of forests,” she said. “The beauty of it. We have every kind of tree you can imagine right out the backyard.”
Now, after the fire, many of those trees are charred and blackened, and soot and ash fill the air every time the wind kicks up. Still, Ms. Morris says she is not going anywhere; instead, she is joining the local volunteer fire department.