Deadly wildfires are raging in the wine country region of northern California – the third straight month of infernos across the western United States and Canada. By Thursday, the California fires had killed at least 23 people and destroyed 3,500 homes or businesses. Those numbers are likely to increase once the fire is suppressed and officials can conduct more thorough searches.
In August, fires raging in a remote region of British Columbia choked Vancouver and Seattle with smoke. That month, more than a million acres in Montana burned, forcing schoolchildren to stay inside. In September, terrifying images circulated of fires smoldering in the background of everyday scenes like an airport tarmac in Burbank, California and a golf course in Oregon.
The toll of these fires is the product of bad land use, especially over-development at the perimeter of forests, and subsequent fire suppression efforts that protect those developments at the expense of a vital natural cycle. If U.S. and Canadian authorities don’t adopt the right policies, wildfires will only become more deadly.
Following a wet and snowy winter in the West, many hoped this year would see minimal wildfires. But a hot, dry summer that set heat records even in normally-chilly San Francisco destroyed that optimism. This year is no fluke: large wildfires have become more common and damaging in recent years. In 2015, Washington State saw its worst wildfire season on record, including the largest fire in state history. In 2013, a rapidly escalating wildfire in Arizona killed 19 members of an elite firefighting squad. Climate scientists predict that global warming will make wildfires worse as less mountain snowpack and hotter, drier summers conspire to create more conflagrations.
The issue is most acute in the western areas of North America because the region’s rapidly growing population, proliferation of rural vacation homes, and suburban sprawl means more and more people are building too close to forests. From 1960 to the early 2000s, the U.S. population living in what’s known as the “wildland-urban interface,” the locations where homes and businesses butt up against a fire-prone natural environment – think of a subdivision in an Arizona canyon or a cluster of mountain cabins in Colorado surrounded by thick forest – has ballooned by 720 percent, from 25 to 140 million people. According to the U.S. Forest Service, 60 percent of new home construction since 1990 is located in this dangerous zone. As Montana Public Radio, reporting on the wildfire season, described it, “There’s an unquenchable demand for home construction in and near wildfire-prone areas.”
While heavily-forested landscapes are precisely the draw for constructing a cute cabin in the woods or relocating to a small town in the shadow of a tree-lined ridge, they are also increasingly dangerous places for people to live and towns to grow. When human lives and property are under threat, state and local jurisdictions have an obligation to respond. That costs a lot of money – this year has already proven to be the most expensive wildfire season in Montana since 1999, adjusted for inflation – and risks the lives of courageous firefighters.
Just like the need for stricter land-use regulations in the wake of coastal flooding from this season’s devastating hurricanes, it’s time for state and local governments to stop allowing people to live cheek-by-jowl with wildfire-prone vegetation and hold accountable those who take the risk. After all, when local firefighting budgets are exhausted, as they quickly are in heavy fire seasons, the U.S. Forest Service picks up the slack at a cost to all taxpayers. Even worse, voters in some areas with a history of past fires have rejected special assessments to pay for the extra fire prevention and response measures that their lifestyle requires, forcing the cost onto their neighbors who don’t live in fire zones.
Currently, just two states – California and Oregon – have mandatory mitigation measures that require structures in fire-prone zones to be built with fire-resistant materials and homeowners to clear vegetation a certain radius away from the building to prevent fire from engulfing a structure.
Stricter rules are a good first step, but the bigger problem is the people who are living near wildlands in the first place. National Geographic reports that the number of housing units within half a mile of a national forest grew from 484,000 in 1940 to 1.8 million in 2000.
Wildfires serve an important role in ecosystems, clearing underbrush and debris and allowing healthy trees to flourish. When more people live in or near forests, firefighters are ordered to suppress blazes near those houses, disrupting the natural wildfire cycle and making future fires even worse by building up the store of dry vegetation.
Low-density, sprawling development is the chief culprit. Outward expansion happened around every major U.S. city, but the consequences are the most severe in the fire-prone western United States. Many of the major cities with the lowest population densities, such as San Diego, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, are found in the West. Even supposedly eco-friendly West Coast burgs like Portland and Seattle are more spread out than East Coast cities such as Boston or Philadelphia. “In the last half century, about one-fifth of the American people have moved into flame zones, insufficiently aware of the perils awaiting them and inadvertently testing the limits of nature’s tolerance,” writes former National Park Service director Roger Kennedy in “Wildfire and Americans: How to Save Lives, Property, and Your Tax Dollars.”
The West’s historical draw may be as an escape valve from crowded eastern cities, but it’s time to retire that outdated narrative. Westerners who aren’t working the land need to live in dense housing in or near cities, not on big lots out at the edge of a wild forest. There are risks even if that forested hillside is close to the central city – like the Oakland hills, where California’s deadliest fire raged in 1991. Perversely, homeowners there used insurance payouts to build even bigger houses in the hills, though thankfully insurance companies are finally wising up and even refusing to re-insure in fire-prone areas.
The forest should be for visiting and maybe staying overnight in a tent, not for living in permanently. When the smoke from British Columbia made life unbearable in my Seattle apartment over the summer, I retreated to the cleaner air of Olympic National Park. The beautiful temperate rainforest would be a heavenly place for a cabin if I could afford one, but the responsible course of action is to follow the old hiker’s maxim: take only pictures, leave only footprints.