Every summer, we put thousands of young men and women in peril fighting forest fires in the West. This week they are putting their lives at risk in the pinelands of Idaho and Utah, in the chaparral of southern California and in the spruce-fir big woods of the Pacific Northwest.
Helicopters and air tankers hover close to the flames. Some of these aircraft — many older than the people flying them — have suffered mechanical failure, and their crews have died. Yet we, the public and the government, continue to show moral failure — failing to put people, not property, first, refusing to face up to the long-term causes of wildfires that put so many people in danger, especially those we send to fight them. Instead, fire by fire, we look for scapegoats — whether it's a woman who said she set a letter ablaze or a maniac with a kerosene can or a fire-crew manager whose backfire in a controlled burn was swept uphill by a sudden gust.
We have insisted upon developing property that invites wildfire. Over the decades, our policies have encouraged more people to move into fire-prone canyons and brushlands. Through home insurance, power-line placement, road construction, land-tax policies and the absence of fire-conscious local zoning laws, incentives have been created to put buildings and firefighters in harm's way. Natural fires will always strike, but we have to stop increasing the numbers of people threatened by these fires.
Summer after summer, our political leaders — at both the federal and local levels — fail to offer large-scale, long-term solutions. Instead, they join the quest for individual villains and offer nostrums about privatizing the work of reducing "fire load" — all forms of woody, burnable fuel — as if a return to the practices of the 19th century would address land-use and development patterns that have made wildfires so dangerous and costly.
The killer fires in our history started on private land, and the worst of these disasters came amid the slash and dry tinder left by commercial lumbering. Slash fires in the 19th century killed 1,500 people in the Peshtigo fire in Michigan and Wisconsin and 400 around Hinckley, Minn. Eighty people died in the great Montana fire of 1910. There was scarcely an acre of the fire zone visited by President Bush in Arizona in June that had not been cut for timber at least once. The nice big trees that lumber companies want are not the problem. Brush is the problem, and slash from logging.
Real remedies, of course, will cost money up front and be preventive — never an easy sell with the public. We will have to pay people to get out of harm's way. Meanwhile, we should stop subsidizing and encouraging new people to settle in fire zones. And we should enroll an army of young people to restore health to our fire-prone landscape by thinning small trees, cutting and removing brush, initiating controlled burning and restoring grasslands. We'll eventually come to this as Western communities face ever greater threats to life from fire. Why not do it now?
First published in New York Times in 02002.