Former director of the US National Park Service Roger Kennedy had a provocative Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on Tuesday about building in areas prone to wildfires. Kennedy advocates withholding subsidies for new home construction and infrastructure in fire prone locales and the creation of a National Flame Zone Atlas detailing relative exposure to fire.
"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 number 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."
The primary charge of our nation's firefighting infrastructure is to protect human life and property. Kennedy asserts that we waste more than $1 billion in fire suppression in fire prone areas where our lending practices and zoning regulations have enabled new development. While at pains to place the blame on a system that provides little incentive “to mitigate fire risks, such as requiring homeowners to use fire-resistant materials and landscaping”, and on "the federal government, which endorses indiscriminate acceptance of fire risk by subsidizing it indiscriminately", Roger Kennedy's libertarian solution comes across as an insensitive and incomplete response to a complex problem with both ecological and social dimensions.
Roger Kennedy is a member of the board of directors of The Forest Guild, a progressive organization of conservation-minded foresters and allied professionals -myself included - about which I have written here and here. I've been out on the woods with him and respect his scholarship on many levels. Nonetheless, I have to say this Op-Ed piece is more a blast of hot air than a breath of fresh wind.
Should those of us living in coastal communities be denied subsidized mortgages because we are more vulnerable to tropical storms and sea-level rise caused by global warming? How about those farming in frost-prone areas? Since the majority of Americans - including Kennedy - live in coastal counties and we are rapidly losing our agricultural land base in many parts of the country, there is unlikely to be political support for such tactics. Yet Kennedy endorses just such measures for those living in fire-prone areas in western states with rapidly expanding populations.
These lands burn not only because their native vegetation is often fire dependent but also because of factors including past fire suppression that has allowed a massive build up of available fuel, invasive species like cheat grass that are altering natural fire regimes and spreading hot fires faster and more frequently in affected systems, and introduced pests and pathogens like bark beetle that have decimated certain forest species and increased the risk of massive wildfires. The severity and scope of wildfire today is far different from only a few decades ago, and while more people now live in affected areas, they are facing a very different level of threat under these altered conditions.
It is not only those who build new homes in fire-prone areas who are at risk. Ranchers and farmers who have been on the land for generations have seen devastating wildfires destroy their herds and threaten their livelihoods from Texas to Montana. This link shows large wildfires across much of the eastern half of Texas. Is Kennedy suggesting that folks affected by these blazes also be denied assistance and told they were better off moving out of the area?
It "burns" some ecologists that people are building new residences in areas that have natural fire regimes, and there are very legitimate concerns about the wisdom of this practice. People certainly need to make informed choices about where and how they build. What about those without a choice, like the poorer residents of flood prone New Orleans? People live in marginal areas for more reasons than privacy and privilege. Unless we wish to depopulate large areas of the west and southeast, we will need a suite of equitable and effective strategies to address these problems, not just the rather draconian response that Kennedy proposes.