Building despite the danger


Fires: As people continue to move to remote areas, firefighters have to fight increasingly dangerous blazes - with fewer resources.

November 01, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

PRESCOTT, Ariz. - On a ridge above this desert town, low-slung houses with killer views cling to the rock. One slope is covered in lush, green trees. The other side is a mass of twisted, charred sticks.

In the world of backcountry firefighters, this is the wildland-urban interface, or "where the trees meet the eaves." With more and more frequency, it is a zone where they are forced to do battle.

In Prescott and elsewhere around the country, the line of demarcation gets longer as more people move beyond the suburbs for privacy, better views and bigger homes.

Firefighters say their already thin resources cannot keep up with development. In some cases landowners are being told that if they build, firetrucks may not come.

The fires that have been burning in Southern California are only the latest example of what happens when the interface is breached.

In 1991, residents in the hills above Oakland, Calif., watched as wind-swept flames charred 1,500 acres, killing 25 and destroying at least 2,900 buildings.

Last year, the Rodeo-Chediski fire in eastern Arizona burned 469,000 acres and obliterated hundreds of homes.

On this ridge above Prescott nearly 18 months ago, determined firefighters made a stand against a 1,300-acre blaze called the Indian Fire. A last-minute change in the wind turned the fire before it could reach most of the houses, but five of them were destroyed.

Not a deterrent

The near-disaster has not deterred people from building homes near the Prescott National Forest or other wild lands, much to the dismay of the people who are called to put the fires out.

"I thought the Indian Fire would have opened people's eyes here," says Roy Fluhart, a fire planning leader for the U.S. Forest Service in Arizona. "But we ain't seen nothing yet. As long as we continue in this dry cycle, we'll be seeing a lot more burning structures. You can count on it."

John Maclean, a former newspaper editor and author of two books on wildfires, agrees. "Building has accelerated at an enormous pace. It's exploding everywhere virtually unchecked. You can't even quantify it."

Last year, in the middle of a wildfire season that devoured 7 million acres, President Bush announced his "Healthy Forests Initiative," which called for the thinning of more than 20 million acres of national forests to remove potential fuels. Foresters endorsed the initiative. Environmentalists labeled it a sop to the timber industry. Congress was divided.

The divisiveness of the issue should not be a surprise, says Maclean, who chronicled wildfire policy in his book Fire and Ashes. The national strategy moved from the "let it burn" approach of the 19th century to the gung-ho "Ten A.M. Policy" of 1935 that required fires to be put out by mid-morning of the day after they were reported.

Decades of aggressive fire suppression allowed dead trees, dried brush and pine needles to build up on the forest floor. A severe drought in the West along with an infestation of pine bark beetles that killed nearly 800,000 acres of Ponderosa pines exacerbated the problem.

The Bush plan remains stalled in Congress while lawmakers work out a compromise. But even if the plan is approved this fall, U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth acknowledges that it would take more than a decade of thinning before people see a big difference in wildfire risk.

And removing fuels on public lands will not end the horrific photographs and television coverage of neighborhoods in flames, experts say.

In states like Arizona, land-use decisions often don't take into account fire protection, says Fluhart. So homes are being built where the bulk of the firefighters belong to agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

"Protecting private structures is not our mission," Fluhart says. "There are some areas where we'll tell people upfront, `We'll warn you and come get you, but we won't be risking our lives.'

`On your own'

"People are building where there isn't enough access, where it's dangerous for us. They are not using the most fire-resistant building materials. We say to them, `You're going to build down that canyon? ... Hey buddy, you're on your own.'"

Even where municipal fire protection exists, it often isn't enough. A study released this year by the nation's leading fire-fighting agencies noted that about 90 percent of fire departments in small communities are responsible for wild land fire protection, but nearly half of them lack formal training.

But wildland-urban interface dwellers, like people who build oceanfront homes on the foundations of houses torn apart by storms, say they don't mind the risk.

"We choose to live here," says Sue Piper, who bought a home directly across the street from one burned by the Oakland fire. "It's a beautiful area with beautiful views."

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