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Kennedy v. Minnich v. Keeley

I've been putting off this post for a while now because I kept finding other things to blog and I wanted to pace myself, but I figured I ought to get it out before it gets stale. On Thursday, Roger Kennedy -- former head of the National Parks Service, among other things -- spoke at Clark. I wound up spending most of the day with him, because he had a meeting with the grad students, then a lunch with a group of students and professors, then a lecture about wildfire in the US.

In his talk, Kennedy veered from one side to the other of the question in fire ecology represented by the Minnich-Keeley debate. The debate is this: the pattern of wildfire that a place experiences is based on a combination of ignition, fuel, and weather. In the context of southern California, Richard Minnich argues that fuel is crucial in determining the presence and course of high-intensity wildfires, and thus that frequent low-intensity burns can stave off catastrophic fires. Jon Keeley, on the other hand, argues that the key is weather, so when weather conditions are extreme it doesn't make much difference how high the fuel load is.

Kennedy initially framed his lecture -- in which he argued that Cold War fears of presenting concentrated targets to Soviet missiles led to suburbanization, which in turn puts people at risk from wildfires -- in a Keeley-esque fashion. He presented maps of fire danger (based on weather and vegetation type), and overlaid them with maps of population growth. The point was that there are certain areas that just are fire-prone, and we're stupid to encourage people to move into them.

But as he got more political, excoriating Bush for the Healthy Forests Initiative, he showed a Minnich side. He pointed out, for example, that logging increases the fire danger and that the HFI's fuel reduction programs weren't targeted enough at areas around settlement.

As much as he hated Bush, and in spit of his admitted agreement with noted Marxist Mike Davis about the need to eliminate suburbia, he remained a Republican (of the small government-tough love variety). Stated in blunt form, his feeling was "go ahead and live in a fire-prone area, but don't come crying to me for help if your house catches on fire." He held out hope for a tax revolt as Americans realized that their tax dollars go to subsidize suburban sprawl and to rescue suburbanites from fire.


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