As wildfires spread across the West there has been too little discussion of the human decisions that have led to the rising costs in both dollars and loss of lives associated with fire-fighting activities.
While we can all appreciate the heartache that comes with the loss of one’s home to wildfire, such events are not entirely unpredictable. In much of the West, the vegetation is designed to burn. When there is extreme drought, wind and low humidity, uncontrollable wildfires are a natural outcome.
It behooves us to ask whether we should continue to allow unrestricted sprawl to grow beyond the urban fringes of the West’s communities. When someone chooses to build a home in flammable landscapes, they wind up enjoying the benefits of a home in the woods, while society often gets stuck with the costs of protecting those homes.
The Corral Fire is a direct consequence of sprawl. While I applaud the homeowner who was removing flammable materials near his home and burning up the debris to make a more defensible space which unfortunately led to the fire, we must remember that the Corral fire is a consequence of sprawl. If we discouraged construction in the wildlands urban interface instead of facilitating it in a thousand ways, we could avoid the need for such defensible space and subsequent fires in the first place.
City, county and state governments also bear some of the responsibility for the growing tax burden on all citizens due to their failure to rein in sprawl, and their failure to restrict new construction in potentially fire-prone landscapes.
There is a “fire plain” that is analogous to a river flood plain. Just as constructing a home in a flood plain will sooner or later lead to expensive efforts to save homes from floods, constructing homes in the fire plain has a similar consequence. We all pay for the unwise decisions of others either directly through tax supported fire fighting and/or higher insurance premiums.
George Wuerthner is the author of “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.” He lives in Helena.