Houses Built to Burn
By Roger G. Kennedy Director of the National Park Service from 1994 to 1997 Author of “Wildfire and Americans.” Cambridge, MA
This summer, construction crews are once again in a race with fire crews all over the West. Last year, more than eight million acres burned. So far this season, more than 60,000 wildfires have consumed seven million acres. Yet those counties in Colorado and New Mexico afflicted in recent years by the worst wildfires are also among those with the greatest influx of new resi- dents. Half of the nation’s popula- tion growth is taking place in the 10 fastest- growing states; seven of those states rank in the top 10 in the percentage of their popu- lation at risk from wildfire.
This land rush into the tinderbox makes no distinc- tion between safe and unsafe neighborhoods or build- ing materials. But then, neither does the federal govern- ment, which endorses indiscriminate acceptance of fire risk by subsidizing it indiscriminately.
Taxpayers build roads and power lines into the fire- traps and insure the mortgages of those who live there. When the fire closes in, we pay to rescue the victims. Thus we encourage construction while risking the lives of both homeowners and those who rescue them. This week, nearly 4,000 firefighters are working to control a blaze in Southern California that so far has claimed 110 square miles, dozens of homes and one life.
It’s unclear how many billions are wasted in this cruel fashion, largely because it’s impossible to calculate the precise amount of the federally insured mortgages that underwrite construction in flame zones. But since 2000, suppression and clean up of this annual conflagration has cost more than $1 billion a year - most of it almost certainly spent on contracts with private companies.
A fire-industrial complex has grown up to take advan- tage of this big business. In hot, dry places with vegeta- tion that burns, wise communities require fire-resistant construction. But according to a recent Government Accountability Office report, such “firewise principles” are frequently ignored. The current system, the G.A.O. said, provides little incentive “to mitigate fire risks, such
as requiring homeowners to use fire-resistant materials and landscaping.”
This is madness. The reinsurance industry knows pre- cisely - ZIP code by ZIP code, mailbox by mailbox - where, and how severely, people are at risk in fire-prone states. The industry does not purposefully deny this In- formation to the public, but few know where to find it.
Efforts to reduce taxpayer subsidies that urge people into danger should begin with access to the facts. Few families would put their lives and possessions in fire- traps if fully informed of the risks. Most migrants to the fire-prone West are told only that it’s been hot and dry
We need a National Flame Zone Atlas detailing the country’s relative exposure to fire. Based on that infor- mation, subsidies for homebuilding and infrastructure in specific locales should be granted or withheld.
The mere existence of a National Flame Zone Atlas would drive home two truths: that wildfire is a fact of life and that the moral and political imperative before us is not just adapting to wildfire, but reducing the num- ber of people going uninformed into danger. Fire, like flood, teaches political lessons about costly taxpayer subsidies that encourage building in danger zones. We need to stop encouraging people to build houses where houses don’t belong.
Colorado Forestry Association 5