Editorial Board

Western U.S. Will Keep Burning Unless Fire Policy Changes

It is only mid-July, and Colorado has already had its most destructive wildfire in history -- some 350 houses in and near Colorado Springs burned, causing more than $110 million in damage.

This broke the previous state record, which was set earlier this summer in a fire farther up the Front Range of the Rockies. In May and June, New Mexico suffered its most devastating blaze ever -- worse than the one last year that threatened Los Alamos.

This is a scary trend.

In the 1960s, Colorado had about 460 fires a year that burned an average of 8,000 acres, according to a report compiled from state forest service records. In the past 10 years, the state averaged about 2,500 fires a year that consumed about 100,000 acres.

Climate change plays a role. Higher average temperatures mean the snowpack recedes earlier, and the fire season is extended in some places by almost two months. A study in Montana found that a rise of one degree in summer temperatures doubles costs of protecting a home against fire.

Yet hand-wringing about global climate patterns shouldn’t distract us from dealing with the primary causes of the danger: human development and forest policy.

As more people moved to the so-called Wildland Urban Interface, where houses and forests intersect, the national policy of suppressing fires rather than letting them burn became more entrenched. That has meant fewer natural fires, which burn the underbrush but allow the mature trees to survive and propagate. In recent decades, fuel on the ground has built up, causing today’s fires to burn more intensely, leaving a moonscape of ash.

Life and property have been lost in the fires, at unfathomable cost. But this can’t be allowed to obscure the burden borne by U.S. taxpayers -- more than $3 billion annually. About half of the Forest Service’s entire budget goes into fighting wildfires, up from 13 percent in 1995.

How can we stop this cycle?

Although we can’t prevent people from building in fire zones, we can discourage it.

One of four Colorado homes is in a red zone, the places most vulnerable to wildfires. One-fifth of forested private land bordering public wild land in Colorado has been developed -- the largest proportion in the Rocky Mountain West, according to an independent research group, Headwaters Economics. Local officials are loath to impose tighter zoning; this is the scenic real estate that attracts companies and workers.

Another reason for foot-dragging is that communities can count on federal firefighting aid and disaster relief. National taxpayers picked up most of the $40 million (and rising) tab to fight the two Colorado fires, for example. Too few municipalities are willing to mandate proven fire-prevention measures such as clearing vegetation to create a safety perimeter and installing fire-resistant roofs. Growing pressure to enforce such changes is coming from the home insurance industry, which is facing escalating claims. Environmentalists complain that the “firewise” practices simply encourage more people to live higher in the forests. But communities have to strike a balance: If they won’t limit new subdivisions, they should at least make public safety a priority.

The federal government is aware of the problem. As the inspector general for the Agriculture Department said in a 2006 report, landowners lack incentives to take “responsibility for their own protection” and “ensure homes are constructed and landscaped in ways that reduce wildfire risks.”

Why can’t Washington just charge state and local governments for part of the firefighting costs? The prospect of losing free rescue money horrifies lawmakers from fire-prone states, including many budget hawks who decry wasteful public spending.

If only the government would let timber companies go in and remove the trees, there would be no problem, some of these politicians say. But commercial logging operations -- subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer through road construction and below-market timber sales -- are generally distant from populated areas. Rather than reduce the danger, they tend to take the big trees and leave the brushy stuff to bake in the sun.

So with any plans for “mechanical thinning” -- which often means logging -- the devil is in the details. Tom Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service, said the agency hopes to treat up to 4 million acres of land a year with forest thinning and prescriptive burning. That is just a small patch of the 65 million acres that have been found to have unnaturally thick growth. The decisions about what areas to clean up should be based on science, not on whether they have commercial value for timber companies. This is expensive work, but if it helps to reduce the costs of firefighting down the road, the investment will be worth it.

Some scientists say that setting prescribed fires would be simpler, cheaper and better for the environment than any thinning operations. And, yes, these blazes are safe in most cases. They have sparked a disaster or two and those experiences have made them politically unpopular and logistically difficult, especially in the areas near housing developments.

One initiative that was supposed to help firefighting agencies make the best use of their combined resources is the long-delayed computer system known as Fire Program Analysis. This was intended to help with forest management decisions such as where to cut, when to fight blazes and when to let them burn, and was scheduled to be up and running by 2007. Five years later, the program appears to be derailed, beset by turf battles among states and other bureaucratic entanglements. President Barack Obama could make this a campaign issue: Put the firefighting resources where they are needed.

Conveniently, that would be in the crucial swing state of Colorado. It is unrealistic to expect any politician this year to ask why the federal government picks up most of the bill for protecting subdivisions in the Rockies. But there is no denying that conditions are getting worse. Small steps would be better than nothing.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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