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18.4.06

Why Fire Suppression Continues

This article gives a fairly good summary of the current thinking on fire in the American West. It raises the important point that while the ideology of total fire suppression in the Forest Service has died (it was wounded in the 40s and finally gave up the ghost in the 70s), the practice of fire suppression remains strong.

The author does not, however, connect the persistence of suppression with another important point that he covers -- namely the increase in vulnerability. While there are more and bigger fires now than in the past (as a result of drought, climate change, pest infestations, and most significantly fuel buildup due to a history of fire suppression), the main problem is that there are too many people in harm's way. Perverse economic and political incentives encourages people to move into exurban areas. And once they're there, a combination of poor risk perception, low value placed on fire safety as compared to other values, and structural barriers (eg homeowner association rules and a lack of disposal facilities) make it unlikely that homeowners will make their homes firesafe. (Though it may betray the discipline of geography to say this, I think the author of the article overemphasizes the macro-geographical factors, with his talk of "fire plains" analagous to flood plains, when by his own admission it's the area within 100 feet of the house, not your geographical location, that makes the most difference to your fire safety.)

With lots of people in vulnerable situations, it makes sense for the Forest Service to emphasize suppression (which is not to say that there aren't other endogenous factors supporting the continued practice of suppression). The short-term risks of a major fire -- altruistically in terms of loss of life, and selfishly in terms of loss of public and Congressional confidence in the agency -- are too great for them to take the longer view. Only when the vulnerability of residents is reduced (through a combination of individuals and communities taking responsibility, and homeowner groups and local governments changing laws to facilitate, rather than inhibit, fire safety) will the Forest Service have the freedom to practice more controlled burning and let-burning. (The author of the article overemphasizes let-burning in the belief that it's better because it's "natural.")

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