Monday, September 8, 2003

This summer, there was a fire in the San Juan National Forest near Vallecito, Colo., and the people at the U.S. Forest Service did something novel about it. Well, not exactly something — more like nothing. For the most part, they stood back, kept an eye on it, and let it do what fires do. After a few weeks and some rain, it went out on its own, at no loss in lives or property.

That may sound about as sensible as an army staying in the barracks while the country is being invaded. But in recent years, the federal government has figured out that trying to snuff out every puff of smoke in the woods is a losing battle. Sometimes, it has concluded, the safest and cheapest policy is to let nature have its way.

This is a big country, and much of it is heavily wooded, prone to drought and therefore susceptible to combustion. Fortunately, an occasional burn can be a good thing. It clears out brush, debris and small trees that serve as kindling for the flames, thus preventing a buildup of fuel that can eventually produce an even bigger conflagration.

But inaction is not the natural tendency of politicians or government agencies. They prefer to err on the side of doing too much, too often.

Traditionally, the Forest Service has assumed you don’t fight fire with fire; you fight it with money. Over the last decade, its budget for fire suppression has quadrupled. Lately, it’s been hiring lots of new firefighters and buying more equipment. But all those additional resources haven’t stopped forests from turning into charcoal. Last year, more than 7 million acres burned, more than double the norm.

President Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative is advertised as a way to stop fires before they start by allowing “thinning” of forests on federal lands. What he calls “stewardship contracting” would let timber companies do more logging in exchange for removing small trees and underbrush.

But this is just another version of Washington’s impulse to do something, anything. One problem is that by the administration’s account, there are some 190 million acres of land that are at risk of severe fires, but its plan would affect fewer than 3 million acres this year. The other 981/2 percent would remain vulnerable.

Another drawback is that commercial logging is generally a money-losing deal for taxpayers. In many places, “it costs the Forest Service more to manage a sale than it receives for the stumpage,” report forestry experts John Baden and Peter Geddes of the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE). “In most Rocky Mountain national forests, the cost of managing a timber sale exceeded the value of the logs by a factor of five.”

Why do we make such efforts to prevent something that has been part of the life cycle of forests for eons? Because today, there are rising numbers of homes and people in the path of these fires. But trying to save those houses by drowning wildfires is like trying to prevent shipwrecks by outlawing storms. Just as boats can be designed to withstand violent turbulence, dwellings can be made to survive even huge infernos.

In fact, the best protection for structures located in the “wildland urban interface” is to create spaces that are impervious to fire. That means simple steps like clearing out brush around the building, keeping grass mowed and installing metal instead of wooden roofs. Studies by the Forest Service show that even intense blazes will bypass homes that have been properly fireproofed.

This discovery leads to an obvious conclusion: The chief responsibility for saving homes and communities from forest fires lies not with federal firefighters, but with the people living there — who should be expected to take all reasonable measures to keep the flames away.

Federal outlays could be reduced, and some of the funds could be diverted from fighting fires to augmenting the efforts of homeowners willing to spend their own cash on self-defense. As for homeowners who aren’t willing to do that — well, if they don’t endanger others, they should be permitted to do nothing, and the rest of us should be free not to save their bacon if flames head their way.

For a long time, we have been going to great expense trying to stamp out forest fires, and yet the danger they pose is bigger than ever. A less stubborn policy would almost certainly yield better results. We might find that the government which fights fires best is the government that fights fires least.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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