America’s Wildfire Problem: Time to Protect Ourselves
By Devin Stein
The views contained in this piece are those of the author and STRATA and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
The solution to America’s wildfire problem is closer than you may think.
Wildfires in the western United States threaten millions of people and their homes every year. Some fires have even become severe enough to eradicate entire towns.1 But many communities that are threatened by fires are taking few precautions to avoid the problem. Instead, these communities rely on the government to respond when needed. The growing severity of wildfires, despite the best efforts of government agencies like the Forest Service, suggests residents cannot rely solely on the ability of government to respond – we must also take action at the local level.
Consider this: if your basement starts flooding, what do you do? Odds are you either pump the water out yourself or call a local business to clean up. The mere risk of flooding is an important consideration for many homeowners, who avoid living in areas prone to flooding. Many homeowners even construct drains or landscape to avoid flooding. No one expects the federal government to come fix the problem.
If instead of water, your home is threatened by a wildfire, the status quo is often a response from a government agency. Although the consequences are considerably higher for wildfires, the problem remains the same. Individuals need to avoid the risk of fire or find better ways to live with it. Local problems require local solutions, even with government help.
The first step in addressing America’s growing wildfire problem is to start treating fires as a more local issue. Government agencies can only do so much to manage severe wildfires threatening growing communities. Although it may be reasonable to hold these agencies responsible for fires that start on public lands, the reality is fires become most problematic when they threaten communities.2 Considering the Forest Service spends billions of dollars a year on fires, most of which goes to protecting homes, there is a clear need for better community planning.3
Homeowners living in harm’s way should be concerned about protecting themselves at least as much as government agencies. Agencies like the Forest Service are tasked with trying to allow fires to provide important resource benefits, while also suppressing all fires that could threaten people.4 Perhaps the Forest Service should focus on promoting the natural qualities of lands they manage, and high-risk communities could focus on protecting themselves from the inherent risk of wildfire.
Making a fire-adapted community can be affordable and straight-forward. Instead of merely hoping one’s home will be protected, homeowners can make a series of small changes to decrease the risk of property loss. For example, maintaining 100 feet of space without flammable materials around a house, switching to metal or concrete tiles on a roof, and installing fire-resistant siding like brick or stucco are all affordable ways to reduce the risk of losing one’s home in a wildfire.5 Communities can enact zoning and building regulations, grow volunteer networks, and invest resources themselves to reduce the risk of wildfires. By keeping wildfire management activities more local, communities can identify what needs protection the most, what costs are reasonable in protecting these structures, and the best ways to protect the community as a whole.
If everyone starts making these small changes, government agencies could save funding that would be better used for long-term, large-scale fire prevention initiatives. Instead, we are stuck in a cycle of building in high-risk areas, spending lots of money protecting these areas, and ultimately not having enough money to invest in more efficient long-term prevention initiatives.6
After over a century of federal wildfire protection in much of the western United States, the growing severity of wildfires raises concerns that we need a new approach. By focusing on the local level rather than large federal policy reforms, we can find better ways to live with fires. Better responses at the local level will ultimately allow government agencies to make better investments that will save lives and entire communities in the long-term.
Mielke, Brad, and Bill Hutchinson. 2018. “‘This Was a Firestorm’: Deadly California Wildfire Leaves Entire Paradise Town Council Homeless.” ABC News. ABC News. November 13, 2018. https://abcnews.go.com/US/deadly-camp-fire-leaves-entire-paradise-town-council/story?id=59159481. ↩
Cornwall, Warren. 2014. “New Wildfire Science Shows That Small Steps Can Save Homes, Communities.” Nationalgeographic.Com. July 30, 2014. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/07/140730-fire-science-fireproofing-wildfire-california/. ↩
US Forest Service. n.d. “Cost of Fire Operations.” Fs.Fed.Us. Accessed July 8, 2019. https://www.fs.fed.us/about-agency/budget-performance/cost-fire-operations.; US Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General Western Region. 2006. “Audit Report: Forest Service Large Fire Suppression Costs.” https://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/08601-44-SF.pdf. ↩
Berger, C, S Fitzgerald, and D Leavell. 2018. “Managing Wildfire for Resource Benefit: What Is It and Is It Beneficial?” Oregon State University. https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/sites/catalog/files/project/pdf/em9193.pdf. ↩
National Fire Protection Association. n.d. “How to Prepare Your Home for Wildfires.” Accessed July 8, 2019. https://www.nfpa.org//-/media/Files/Firewise/Fact-sheets/FirewiseHowToPrepareYourHomeForWildfires.pdf. ↩
“Mokelumne Watershed Avoided Cost Analysis: Why Sierra Fuel Treatments Make Economic Sense.” 1 (April 10, 2014). https://sierranevada.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/236/2019/05/MACA_Full_Report.pdf. ↩