The Woes of the WUI

Steve Pyne is a fire historian, professor at Arizona State University, and the author of over 20 books, including "Tending Fire: Coping with America's Wildland Fires." We asked him to join the conversation about privatized firefighting raised in this week's segment "Fire, Inc."

Steve Pyne

The wildland/urban interface is a dumb term for a dumb problem, and both have dominated the American wildfire scene for nearly 20 years.

It’s a dumb term because “interface” doesn’t really convey the exurban recolonization of rural America — sprawl — that drives the problem. It’s a mingling of the quasi-urban and the quasi-wild into something that, depending on your taste, resembles either an ecological omelet or a coniferous strip mall. That means it also stirs together urban fire services with wildland fire agencies, two cultures with no more in common than an opera house and a grove of old-growth ponderosa pine. It’s an unstable alloy, a volatile compound of matter and antimatter. Call it the environmental equivalent of subprime landscapes, which from time to time crash catastrophically.

It’s a dumb problem because technical solutions exist. We know how to keep houses from burning on the scale witnessed over the past two decades. We know convincingly that combustible roofing is lethal; we’ve known this for maybe 10,000 years. Yet, after banning wood roofing, it returns some decades later.

Before we denounce the villains, who are often the victims, we ought to note that analogous problems exist in the U.S. for barrier islands, floodplains, earthquake zones, tornado belts. Sprawl is interbreeding with whatever natural hazard it finds. The West’s version, wildfire, is simply more telegenic. So, too, all the industrial countries are experiencing similar outbreaks, from Australia to Spain. The global climate is one factor: so is the global economy.

Who should fix the problem? At first blush the WUI seems another example of privatizing profits and socializing losses. Individuals get the trophy homes (and views), while society pays the tab for protection. There is plenty of truth in this rendering. The I-zone fires are the exurban version of Wall Street’s conflagrations.
But there is another, weirder misdirection of responsibility. While residents are lectured that they must provide “defensible space,” they are not allowed to defend it. They are forced to evacuate, often in mass numbers. Apparently I can defend my house with any paramilitary armaments I choose, but not with a garden hose and a rake. Folk no longer have access to fire, or responsibility for protecting themselves from it. It’s as through fire has become a government monopoly, like atomic energy.

Australia is well ahead of us on this score, both in civil liberties and in practical response. “Houses protect people; people protect houses.” The fire authorities teach those who wish to stay how to prepare and defend. It’s not for everyone, and if you evacuate, you do so early. But making people defend their own place helps to concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Instead, we have twice misplaced responsibilities. Society has little say over where people build, or under what codes, but must furnish protection, while people who wish to actively assist are force-marched out of the way, leaving too many houses with too few protectors. No wonder we can’t manage our national finances.

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