Deja vu. Same old same old.
Another scorching August, another late summer watching smoke billow in the distance, another week reading of our unfortunate friends on Level 3, packing up their family photos and heading for some hold to wait and hear if their home survived.
We who make our homes in the hearth known as the Western United States should know what to expect. Every year around this time we see the flames dancing up the hills and act as if this is something new, as if lightning hitting dry grass on a ridgetop is a human-induced phenomenon that could have been avoided had we been more politically astute. In our haste to blame someone else, we forget the flames have been flowing regularly up and down these canyons and across these ridges since the close of the last Ice Age. The human anxiety, the choked lungs, the threat to property, the potential tragedy, the enormous expense, and the occasional loss of life — that’s new, because we’re new.
There was another hardy perennial in the news today. The federal budget for fighting wildfires is near empty, again. The account will zero out Friday, according to The Washington Post. This might be surprising, considering that so far this season there have been a mere 31,900 fires in the United States, scorching 3 million acres, according to the Forest Service. That is “mild,” the Post notes. Last year 6.8 million federal acres burned. In 2006, some 80,000 fires covered 6.4 million acres. Add state and private land, and the conflagrations covered 9 million acres in three of the last seven years.
Mild it may be, but so far this year the Forest Service has spent $967 million fighting fires. That leaves just $50 million in the account to thwart dozens of fires in the West, including several whose combustion byproducts you are now inhaling. That’s enough money to cover another two or three days. With the current state of budgetary affairs, it means the Forest Service will have to transfer funds from other accounts to throw in the fire pit. That’s money, the critics point out, that could be better spent thinning our overgrown woods to make them less susceptible to catastrophic fires.
I don’t know what the budget writers were thinking, that they could get away with spending a mere $1 billion on firefighting this year, when $3 billion has been the annual average for the last decade. The $1 billion-per-year fire budget is a relic of the 1990s.
Nature cannot be blamed for stupid budgets. There is a temptation, with us for a while, to fault the people who built the homes now threatened by the flames, the people we once thought fortunate, those with the wherewithal to put up a home on the edge of settlement, near the public lands that provide their flammable scenery. They are in what is called the wildland-urban interface, or the WUI. The analysts point out that taxpayers spend most of their firefighting billions to protect these homes, and that much of our new home building in the West is in the WUI, and in most places residential development in the tinder has only just begun. There will be more.
There was a reasonable analysis on Wednesday’s front page in a story from Stateline.org. It quotes an analysis from Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, Mont., that shows Washington has developed 29 percent of its WUI, which now contains 951,468 homes. Development of these lands is a state and local responsibility that adds greatly to federal firefighting expense, it says. Headwaters says these actions should be considered: raise insurance premiums in the WUI, eliminate the federal mortgage interest deduction for future WUI homes, acquire firebreak easements. “Federal fire control efforts or funding assistance could be withheld” if state and communities don’t help.
It’s easy to predict, we won’t stop development of private land. The WUI is where we live, and every town has a flammable edge in a county that’s 85 percent federal land. When we have fires we will be most concerned that they not burn our neighbors’ homes. We will pray for the firefighters and their safety, and be grateful for the generosity of those who send help. We will have to take personal responsibility to see our own land is managed to make it less vulnerable. Then, breath deep and hope.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.