- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

If you wanted to find Valmeyer, Ill., in August 1993, you needed a mask and a snorkel: Thanks to the Great Flood of the nearby Mississippi River, it was under 14 feet of water. But the next time the river overflows its banks, the people in the town won't care if the water returns to where it was 9 years ago. That's because the town is no longer there.
Instead, the 900 residents of Valmeyer accepted an offer from the federal government to pay to move the whole town to a site 3 miles east atop bluffs that the river won't reach until the second coming of Noah. When another flood occurred in 1995, Valmeyer was high and dry.
The effort there reflected a new understanding that it's easier and less expensive for human beings to accommodate Mother Nature than to fight her. Instead of paying over and over to rebuild homes and businesses that find themselves in harm's way, Washington decided it made more sense to get them out of harm's way.
Maybe that approach should be applied to places in the West that are vulnerable to wildfires. President Bush went to Oregon last Thursday to unveil a plan to let logging companies thin out overgrown forests. But groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council say his plan would "gut environmental protections and boost commercial logging."
There may be some truth on each side of that debate. But both sides fail to address a basic issue: Why should we go to such great lengths to prevent and put out forest fires?
In recent years, it has become accepted wisdom that one reason we have too many fires today is we had too few in the past. Over decades, vigorous fire-suppression campaigns allowed the buildup of dead timber and other flammable material that, combined with recent droughts, turned much of the West into a tinderbox. Mr. Bush's idea is to get rid of some of the tinder.
Another option, though, is to accept that fires are to forests what adolescence is to humans: an unpleasant but necessary part of life. When much of Yellowstone National Park was turned into charcoal in 1988, the nation mourned. But the burn turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As a new report from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says, "Fourteen years later, the park's wildlife and forests are healthy, and visitors continue to wonder at the natural beauty and abundance of Yellowstone."
Destructive as they are, fires serve to regenerate wilderness areas. That's one reason the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service use "controlled burns." Mr. Bush's plan includes these prescribed fires as a tool to head off bigger ones down the road.
But if burning can be so useful, why don't we accept fires instead of declaring war on them? Because in recent decades, millions of people have moved into fire-prone areas, putting their lives and property at perpetual risk. The White House said its initiative is needed because this summer's fires have "driven tens of thousands of people from their homes, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and structures, and caused the deaths of 20 firefighters."
Simply letting the fires burn is not really an option these days, given all the development in and around Western forests. But we ought to be looking for ways to minimize the danger in those areas and to lessen the burden on taxpayers elsewhere.
How can we do that? "We avoid the obvious solution, which is arranging land use so that fewer people are at risk," says William Travis, a geographer at the University of Colorado at Boulder. If local governments decline to block this kind of development, higher levels of government could at least announce that they will make a low- (or no-) priority of saving new dwellings erected where they stand a good chance of being burned to a crisp.
You can't blame Westerners for wanting to live in forested locales any more than you can blame Illinoisans for wanting to reside on the banks of the Mississippi. But these groups shouldn't expect their fellow citizens to subsidize these hazardous choices forever.
The old joke is that if you're romancing a gorilla, you don't end the romance when you want to you end it when the gorilla wants to. Living in fire-prone areas requires similar realism. One thing we've learned from our annual round of Western wildfires is that suppressing Mother Nature's most powerful impulses is an often futile task that only gets bigger with time.
Every summer, we've made a crusade of trying to keep forest fires away from people. Maybe it's time we tried keeping people away from forest fires.

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