Letters From the West

More homes burn because, homeowners, communities, states don’t act

A Wilderness Ranch homeowner thanks the more than 300 people who saved all but on home in the Karney Fire in 2012 (Idaho Statesman file photo by Katy Moeller.)

A Wilderness Ranch homeowner thanks the more than 300 people who saved all but one home in the Karney Fire in 2012 (Idaho Statesman file photo by Katy Moeller.)

It’s déjà vu all over again in the American West.

Last year the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs led to 345 homes destruction. This week the count at the Black Forest area 12 miles away is 379 homes destroyed and two dead.

Our first response should be to help the victims of this disaster pick themselves up, bury their dead and go on. We should reach out to help them like we do the victims of tornadoes, hurricanes and floods.

But make no mistake. These are not natural disasters. Our actions led to them even as the changing climate has made matters worse.

In Idaho last year the most destructive fire wasn’t the Trinity Ridge, the Halstead and the Mustang Complex fires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres of mostly backcountry. It was the 1024-acre Charlotte Fire that burned 66 homes and 29 outbuildings on the edge of Pocatello.

It’s the same place I covered a fire in 1987 and many of the people were just as unprepared in 2012 as I found them then.

The Black Forest area in Colorado is described as a Ponderosa pine forest much like the forests around us. Historically these forests would have burned at intervals of about 30 years. But we put those fires out for 100 years, allowing the understory to grow up, a contributing factor.

But we moved homes in with cedar shake roofs, wood decks and other hazards. Despite 20 years of ever-growing fires we have not acted to make these homes and communities safe.

This is not an issue in the forest. This is an issue in the communities. We need people to build or remodel homes to be defensible if they live next to wildlands, forest or range. Then we need to make some policy decisions about evacuation. How many people could have saved their homes because the fire slowly burned across their lawn and started their deck?

How much of this fire was like the Waldo fire last year where most of the homes lost were ignited by other homes, not by the forest fire?

We spend so much to fight fires to save homes that people and communities don’t protect themselves. Then we blame the government for having the forests, that evolved with fire, that the people want to live near.

This story is not new to Idaho Statesman readers. We have been going through this since 1989. The Eighth Street Fire in 1996, the Oregon Trail Fire in 2008, the Karney Fire last year all have heightened our awareness.

The Karney fire is worth noting since Wilderness Ranch, the community that was threatened, was one of the first in the nation to become a what is known as a Firewise Community.

Its homeowners association worked with noted fire scientist Jack Cohen in 2002 on a plan to make individual homes safer and defensible. When the Karney fire struck last September there were some tense days but the community was saved because it was defensible.
Cohen has studied dozens of fires across the nation since the 1990s, and he sees the same behavior every time. Most homes are ignited by flying embers thrown as far as a mile and a half ahead of a crown fire, or ignite when the ground fire reaches brush and trees within 100 feet of the buildings.

The homes themselves burn especially hot, and can send off their own embers to start new fires, but often the trees around the burned homes are left with their green canopies intact. Look at the aerial photos of the Black Forest Fire and you see this.
Time and time again Cohen’s research has been confirmed that fires can be fought within the communities, and that raging fires on public lands don’t need to be stopped in the wilderness to protect private property. But when you get hundred of fires threatened there just aren’t enough firefighters to save them all.
If we are serious we will require forest homeowners to have a fireproof roof, clear their gutters of pine needles, and remove bushes and trees within 100 feet of their home. This is far less expensive and more effective for protecting homes than putting firefighters in front of blazing crown fires on public lands.
Cutting trees to thin the forest around communities – the preferred method of treating federal lands to protect homes – reduces airborne embers that ignite many house fires, but that tactic is still more expensive and less effective than clearing directly around homes.
When Heath Druzin and I did our series in 2008 Fire Wise, we quoted Cohen:
“We have the ability to be compatible with fire, but we mostly choose not to be. Our expectations, desires, and perceptions are inconsistent with the natural reality.”

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West