Fire prevention dollars could be better spent on land-use management than on oversimplified solutions that sometimes only exacerbate the problem, wildfire researchers say.
Max Moritz, a fire specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the lead author of a study released yesterday in Nature, said in a phone interview that people tend to oversimplify the causes of fires, and therefore the solutions, in different areas.
He said that prevention strategies either believe that the fires are caused by a build-up of fuel in the underbrush, or that it's all due to climate change.
"People don't see the nuances, the many different facets of fire problems," he said. "In general, one of the things that became screamingly obvious is that we have these solutions that are overly simplistic."
He said that this oversimplification can waste tax dollars and public resources. "We're not spending our public resources in the most effective way."
Moritz said that one of the main problems is that government agencies and building codes don't treat fire-prone areas the same way as they do when planning buildings in earthquake zones or on hillsides that could suffer from landslides.
"We're not really looking at fire like that," he said. When planning new communities or building in general, governments, developers and communities don't pay enough attention to things such as wind patterns and fuel availability.
Playing 'catch-up' with risks and building codes
Moritz said that better fire hazard mapping could be taken into account for construction in some areas. "We can be proactive about where and how we build," he said. "Otherwise, we're just going to be playing catch-up."
Ray Rasker, the executive director of Headwaters Economics, agrees with the message of Moritz's paper. "We could do a much better job of mapping fire risks," he said, adding that there are currently no national standards for mapping fire risks.
He said this means that potential homeowners have no idea whether a subdivision has an elevated fire risk.
Rasker agrees with Moritz that there should be even more emphasis on planning and has developed some ideas for potential solutions. He co-authored another paper released this week that said the costs and risks of building in wildfire areas could be lowered by applying techniques used in national floodplain management.
"You don't want to copy everything from floodplain management because there were some big mistakes there," Rasker said. But the ways that insurance is subsidized in some floodplains could be applied to fire-prone areas.
Community rating system for reducing risks
In floodplains, for example, Rasker said that the more a community does to mitigate risks, the more the government will subsidize insurance costs.
Rasker said that a kind of community-rating system could also be applied in fire-prone areas, with the government offering insurance subsidies where risk mitigation is occuring.
It could also be a way to prioritize mitigation action. The government currently only has the capacity to reduce fire fuel in 3 million acres out of the 230 million acres that need it. Rasker said a way of rewarding communities that take better planning into account could be giving them prioritized aid from fire agencies.
Moritz also said that it would be helpful if fire-prevention agencies had a greater involvement in land management as they could advise about places more and less likely to be affected by wildfires.
"It would make sense to have fire agencies weigh in more on land-use planning," he said.
The oversimplification of fire-prevention strategies can also lead to problematic evacuations, Moritz said. While the United States usually enforces mandatory evacuations in communities near wildfires, he said that, depending on the evacuation routes and the escape time, evacuation could place people in a more dangerous situation than what they may have faced from staying put.
"There's a lot more to the issue than people are currently being told about," Moritz said. "We need to step back and have a much broader conversation about what we need to do to coexist with fire."
One of the reasons public funds are being wasted, Moritz said, is that millions of dollars are spent on prevention measures like removing fuel from fire-prone landscapes.
"That public funding is just making those landscapes a little bit less hazardous to live in. That in turn encourages further development," he said. But if the developments weren't there in the first place, we wouldn't be spending that money.
Who pays the real cost of a home in the woods?
"If we're going to be allowing people to build in places that are hazardous, do we as taxpayers want to fund [fire prevention and fighting] there?" he asked. "We're focusing our public funds on the wrong solutions."
Rasker said that part of the problem is that, whereas rural communities used to be created principally in places important for resource extraction, these days more people are moving into homes in the woods after retiring in order to get away from cities.
This move has contributed to an increase of fire prevention and fighting costs, he said: "In one decade, the cost has tripled."
The National Forest Service has a $2.2 billion budget for fire defense. But he said that not even a penny is spent on helping communities with land-use planning.
"Not only do the plans not communicate with each other, but they are actually at odds with each other," he said.
In another paper released in September, he said that if even 1 percent of that money went into giving grants for community land-use planners, it could make a significant difference.
"Let's help these communities do better planning."
The disconnect between risk and cost of prevention is sometimes so high that Rasker cited cases in California in which the government spent $400,000 to $600,000 per home in fire defense when it would have been cheaper just to buy the land.
Moritz said that the problem is only getting worse moving forward.
"One of the key simple facts that's worth repeating is that as climate changes and more places become fire-prone, this problem is only going to become more critical," Moritz said.
"We've got to get ahead of this problem so that we're not constantly retrofitting."
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