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9.3.04

Fire And Newcomers

Fireproofing Rules To Stem Wildfire Threats

... In addition, 30,000 Deschutes County [Oregon] property owners will be notified in April that their land has been classified as forestland-urban interface. The 1997 law can make residents liable for $100,000 in firefighting costs if they fail to trim flammable grass, brush and trees.

State foresters estimate forestland-urban interface — the woodsy areas on the outskirts of towns — cover 3.5 million acres and contain 250,000 homes. Many are occupied by residents new to Oregon or rural living who do not understand the natural role of fire in the forests and who fail to take common-sense precautions.

Under Oregon’s new fireproofing rules, homeowners will have two years to voluntarily certify that they have created a 30-foot firebreak around their homes by removing dead vegetation, trimming limbs that could carry fire onto the roof and mowing dry grass.

Oregon’s new rules follow the lead of California, which in 1982 began classifying fire hazard zones and in 1991 began requiring fuel breaks, greenbelts, private water sources and brush-free driveways accessible to emergency vehicles.


The newness of so many residents of interface areas seems like it may necessitate a greater degree of legal enforcement of fire policy. Recent arrivals haven't been around long enough to be closely connected to either the local environment or the local community. Stephen Pyne has frequently mentioned the connection to environment issue -- people who work on the land and know it well will have much better knowledge of how the local environment works and what its demands are than will people who just came for the scenery. But he tends to overlook the issue of connection to the community. Non-governmental solutions would have to work through cultural mechanisms -- the development of a consensus among locals as to what sort of fire management they want, the absorption of a cultural lifeworld that motivates people to take action and to see the landscape through the lens of good fire policy, and the use of social pressures to generate compliance. But all those mechanisms are weakened when your community is made up of people who haven't imbibed the local culture long enough, particularly if (as is the case with so many suburban developments) the town lacks a vibrant downtown or other elements that would encourage the development of social interaction. The only solution, then, is to embed fire policy in the legal structure (at a state level, in order to be ready to go with each new village) and enforce it individually against residents.

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