Defensible Space in Wildfire-Prone Areas Can Save Lives -- So Why Isn't it the Norm?

Smoke from the Mountain Fire in the San Jacinto Mountains.
Smoke from the Mountain Fire in the San Jacinto Mountains. | Photo: Cary Rodriguez/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Not every wildland fire is a disaster. Not every such blaze burning through pine forests or oak savannas or chaparral-studded foothills merits hyperventilated commentary about its threat to civilization as we know it. Some fires are just fires.

That's easier to say about conflagrations elsewhere, though the recent Yarnell Hill disaster is an obvious exception to this rule -- everyone felt the pain of that tragedy however distant they were from it.

Fires in one's backyard are another matter.

That struck me on my morning walk last week as I watched the sky lighten in the east -- a copper disc rose above the San Jacinto Mountains 50 miles away, its wavering light bounced off the plumes of smoke thrown up by the so-called Mountain Fire near Idyllwild, California.

When I had gone to bed, the fire had consumed maybe 14,000 acres; twelve hours later it had spread to more than 22,000, and its rapid growth was reflected in another sign of the ineluctable link between that place which was burning and my place, which was not. (The fire has since grown to over 27,000 acres). The winds shifted and within hours Mt. Baldy and the foothills above Claremont were wreathed in throat-burning drift smoke. It's hard to miss how integrated we are in this bioregion when the air tastes like charcoal.

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Our collective binding should also come with a shared sense of responsibility for how we best live in this dry land that often burns. That message is threaded into the incident report posted about the Mountain Fire. After detailing the fire's timeline, offering a damage assessment, listing the relevant closures of roads, campgrounds, and trails in the San Bernardino National Forest, indicating which communities were under evacuation orders, and enumerating the number of firefighters (3300+) and equipment on the scene (263 engines, 19 helicopters, 10 fixed wing aircraft, including a DC-10, 53 hand-crews, 30 water-tenders, and 11 dozers), it offers this essential prompt:

That residents in the fire zone have an inescapable obligation to help those who are risking their lives to defend their houses, stores, cars, and other property would seem to be a fully understood duty. Two new reports suggest, however, that not everyone embraces this idea of a social compact.

Start with the killer Yarnell Hill fire. Given that the 19 firefighters who lost their lives there were standing between the explosive blaze and a new subdivision less than a mile away, the Pacific Biodiversity Institute probed why some homes that lay within the fire's perimeter burned and others did not.

30 percent of the structures  identified as not fire-safe that burned in the Yarnell Hill Fire. | Screenshot: Courtesy Pacific Biodiversity Institute
30 percent of the structures identified as not fire-safe that burned in the Yarnell Hill Fire. | Screenshot: Courtesy Pacific Biodiversity Institute

Using Google Earth to get a quick snapshot of pre-fire conditions on the ground, its researchers tagged homes that had "tree and shrub canopies touching them or overlapping their roofs." There were a lot of them -- "we found that 89% of the homes and other structures appeared to be in direct contact with trees or shrubs." To compare these homes with those that actually were damaged or destroyed in the fire, the analysts then compared this data with records and maps that Yavapai County produced about post-fire destruction. No surprise, "95% of the structures we had marked as potentially fire-safe survived and, at most, 5% burned. This compares very favorably to the 30% of the structures that we had identified as not fire-safe that burned in the fire."

The institute's conclusion is not surprising either: "The contrast between these two structure survival rates is substantial and illustrates that simple and inexpensive measures, like keeping flammable vegetation away from homes, can have a real impact on the ability of a home to survive a wildfire."

Those living in the subdivisions locked within Arizona's flammable chaparral shrublands are not alone in having been slow to make their homes more defensible. To get at why this might be so, the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station conducted a careful survey of the fire prevention attitudes and actions of private landowners in the Cascades and Blue Mountains of Oregon.

The impetus for this survey is smartly laid out: "Because fire as a natural process operates across ownership boundaries, the Forest Service is taking an all-lands approach to forest management, and is making an effort to cooperate with other landowners across landscapes," notes Susan Charnley, an environmental anthropologist working for the research station. "There's very little information about how family forest owners manage their land for fire. We need to learn about how they're managing their land for the same risks we face as an agency, to see what we might do differently to better address those risks."

What Charnley and her colleague Paige Fischer discovered is that those whose properties abutted national forest lands and who perceived that there was a clear fire risk in the high hazardous fuel loads on these public lands, tended to be more proactive about making their properties less fire prone. They were also a lot more likely to act if their primary residence was on these forested acres than if theirs was a second home -- eight times more likely, in fact.

This a key finding, as vacation homes make up a goodly number of the residences being slotted into fire zones of all kinds, exacerbating firefighters' abilities to protect lives and property. "Nationwide, the trend has been toward a booming number of nonindustrial private owners, with a shrinking average parcel size," observes John Bliss, the Starker Chair in Private and Family Forestry at Oregon State University. "Million-dollar homes are being built in the middle of harvested timberland without firebreaks. Many new owners who built their dream cabins live in an urban area and have no background in forest management, let alone wildfire prevention or fireproofing. When wildfires come through, these houses are sources of ignition and catastrophic loss."

Survey responses on preferred incentives for reducing fuels.
Survey responses on preferred incentives for reducing fuels. | Image: Courtesy Science Findings/USFS

Those living on the land full time face a different set of difficulties: Reducing fuel loads can cost a lot of money. These expenses might be shared if individual landowners collaborated with their neighbors and land-managing agencies. Yet this cooperative approach is not the default, the Forest Service report reveals, "primarily because of distrust and social norms about private property ownership."

Establishing fiscal and educational incentives to enable individual owners to collaborate in making their properties more fire safe would have a significant impact on protecting lives and livelihoods -- and generating a more resilient and biodiverse landscape.

We might more quickly obtain these good ends, too, if we adopted ethicist Ian Barbour's insight that our "view of nature will influence the way we treat nature, and our view of human nature will affect our understanding of human responsibility."

Being alert to and responsible for the places we inhabit is one way to get grounded. The rise of a coppery sun or yellowish moon can also bring us down to earth.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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