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Development decisions fuel fire danger

2012-07-03T00:00:00Z Development decisions fuel fire dangerBy George Wuerthner, IR YourTurn Helena Independent Record
July 03, 2012 12:00 am  • 

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.

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(3) Comments

  1. steeline
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    steeline - July 15, 2012 9:09 pm
    Hold it. Step back and take a look at the big picture here. It is not home building that cause wildfires, it is not subdivision that cause wildfires and costs to fight them. It is poor use of the natural resource, timber. Everytime there is a need to thin or harvest marketable timber there is a "group" that stops the projects. Wildfires cost money to manage. Proper timber management makes money and provides jobs. What is worse spending millions on fire fighting for nothing in the end or making millions harvesting trees. By the way, you know a tree is a renewable resource. In each case, a tree that is lost to fire or a tree that is harvested the land scape will recover. Keep it simple. We have to restore America.
  2. WalleyeHunter
    Report Abuse
    WalleyeHunter - July 10, 2012 1:36 am
    Odin said: "George, I couldn’t disagree more. This is just one more reason we need to get a developer like Mike Fasbender elected as County Commissioner.As long as landowners in rural areas of Lewis and Clark County are zoned in a manner that permits us to build and profit from our land, that is our right!That’s the problem with two of the three County Supervisors we have in place currently. They are putting up restriction after restriction to slow down rural development with things like falsely suggesting we have water quality issues due to sub standard septic systems, etc.Your ideas that fire danger should also restrict building are not fair to landowners or developers. "

    Enough with the Realtor-speak.

    These homes that are built on decisions unimpeded by common sense and are fueled by pure emotion halfway up a mountain side, 500 feet beyond the last subdivision, are threats to our firefighters lives and result in expenditure of precious resources that could have instead gone toward protecting other homes built with Firewise principles.

    Lots of us admire these homes for their beauty, but not for their common sense. In my opinion, these people are waiting for the inevitable when their home is burned to ashed. Not if, but when.

    They are what firefighters call "drive-by's" as trained firefighters will not and should not risk their lives protecting homes that are destined to burn to the ground because the builders did not make the home defensible or provide adequate escape routes, etc. because that would have cut into their bottom line.

    Undoubtedly these are the folks who moan to their insurance companies when they are told they will be in the highest bracket. THey also complain to their supervisors who cave in and extend services to them, subsidized by the rest of us.

    Make no mistake, having these sorts of homes deep in the woods affects the decisions of an incident commander who really should be thinking about utilizing scant resources on protection of the community, not a single home in a remote location. Suddenly firefighters now have to be aware of fuel tanks, tanks containing other combustibles (oxygen, etc), around the home.

    Undoubtedly these are the folks who bemoan the state and federal expenditures on everything, yet are puzzled when told by firefighters that the resources required to protect their home means that 20 homes in a subdivision closer to town wouldn't be protected, or that it would put too many firefighters at risk to protect their home, which should never have been built with cedar shake shingles or wood siding at the top of a box canyon to begin with.

    Quit waving the property rights flag and drink some of the common sense Kool-Aid with the rest of us, please. Welcome to Montana, Dorothy - - you're not in California anymore.
  3. Odin
    Report Abuse
    Odin - July 05, 2012 10:27 am
    George, I couldn’t disagree more. This is just one more reason we need to get a developer like Mike Fasbender elected as County Commissioner.

    As long as landowners in rural areas of Lewis and Clark County are zoned in a manner that permits us to build and profit from our land, that is our right!

    That’s the problem with two of the three County Supervisors we have in place currently. They are putting up restriction after restriction to slow down rural development with things like falsely suggesting we have water quality issues due to sub standard septic systems, etc.

    Your ideas that fire danger should also restrict building are not fair to landowners or developers.

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