Forest fires and houses – the Interior Secretary speaks

The question of how much responsibility should fall on the homeowner who choses to live with fire risk came up recently.  Here’s Secretary Jewell’s opinion on that:

“We should be holding these people accountable, and we’re not.”

“We each have to take personal responsibility.”



  1. I’ll agree that forest homeowners need to manage their properties for crown and fines and ignitables. But this gives too little weight to the responsibility of the AGENCIES to manage the fuels on federal lands, you know, preemptively? With an eye toward avoiding fire or at least epic wildfire in the first place. Managed vegetation means managed wildfire. Duh.

    • This reminds me of a recent(ish) incident at a meeting of western Governors. Butch Otter (Idaho) passed Secretary Jewell a mussel-encrusted license plate pulled from Lake Mead and asked when her department would get serious about managing the invasive species.

      I have forestland (no house) in the WUI. I have also done stand surveys, run my stand through fire models, and thinned/pruned as necessary to minimize the risk of crown fire. If I ever build a house there, it will have sufficient defensible space to protect against surface fire. However, if my neighbors (federal, state, private) don’t treat their fuels, I can’t do anything to protect against an active running crown fire.

  2. As a matter of simple decency, courtesy, and respect, neighbors look out for each other. Therefore, I, as a neighbor, should not be creating a hazard or even allowing a hazard to develop that would very likely adversely impact others. It is simply being a good neighbor.

    If I did have a hazard or allowed a hazard to develop, that might be considered an “attractive nuisance” and, if the neighbor’s child was drawn to that nuisance and injured, I could very well be held liable.

    From Wikipedia: “The attractive nuisance doctrine applies to the law of torts, in the United States. It states that a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by an object on the land that is likely to attract children.” If there are excessive fuels on the neighbor’s and, kids being kids, were playing with matches, then would that not be considered an attractive nuisance?

    Maybe federal agencies can hold themselves exempt from the idea of being a good neighbor.

  3. I feel you are all missing the point that fire is a known and acknowledged threat in PUBLIC wildland areas. You are suggesting that it’s the agencies responsibility to stop wildfire at property lines. What responsibility do federal or state fire crews have spend public tax money and put lives at risk to protect structures on PRIVATE land when the pvt owner has made no effort to safeguard their property? The hazard of a forest and fire is not “created” by the agency; it is inherent to the character of the landscape. I strongly advocate for prioritized veg treatments in the WUI acknowledging the “neighbor” relationship. RISK, on the other hand, is created by building a home in that landscape, and minimizing risk is the homeowner’s responsibility.

    • One could say the same thing about disease, sanitation, crime, water quality, etc. The risk and hazard is only to those unprepared for what is “natural”. To hell with those who choose to live under such conditions, eh? Why should people risk their lives trying to save those living under those “natural” conditions? *smirk*

  4. That’s a pretty cynical take on my comment. In my neighborhood, people mow yard, pull weeds, pick up dead limbs, etc. That’s all I’m saying — if you want to live in the woods where fire is a known hazard, take necessary precautions. Don’t exacerbate a known risk by neglecting prudent measures. If you’re not willing to do that (as Secy Jewell says) don’t blame others if your house burns down.
    BTW based on your comment, can I assume you’re a “big government” Democrat? ‘Cause it’s going to take a mighty big govt to protect those millions of houses to the Nth degree.

    • If we can plan for 100-year floods, why not plan for 100-year droughts? Or 100-year fire seasons? Your solution seems to be “Whatever Happens” and “blame the victims”. I find it odd that people worry about seeing a few stumps in their “viewshed” but, are just fine with a million snags in that same viewshed. I’ve always been in favor of people making defensible space but, you cannot do that if the legal requirements slop over on to Forest Service lands. Several years ago, firefighters were seen doing homeowners’ fuels work, during the Blacks Fire, in Colorado. I’m fine with authorities designating un-defensible zones in forested neighborhoods, telling homeowners that lives will not be risked if the residents don’t meet the established guidelines. Firefighters should not have to do fuels work during a running wildfire incident.

      However, there should be economical thinning projects completed, leaving a defensible zone surrounding homes, on public lands. 150 feet is woefully inadequate, with 3000 feet being preferred, depending on fuels and terrain. Look at Lake Tahoe, for example. Or, Idyllwild. Or Bend. Or Sun Valley. Or many other smaller towns.

      There are ways of forcing residents to meet fire safe guidelines but, how can we force the government to meet similar guidelines? Even the Indians expertly managed the fuels around their settlements. Why can’t we do that, too? Remember, those homes are on private lands, and the Feds have little say in what happens there. It’s also pretty cynical to blame the victims when a firestorm roars off Federal lands, wiping out fire safe neighborhoods.

  5. I’m certainly not the first to suggest this should be a shared responsibility. Best case scenario is for private in-holdings to do a first rate “fire wise” job on their homes and lands. And for adjacent public lands to be managed to reduce risk. As a fed, I would have moved such situations to the top of my “to do” list. All things being equal, if the main reason is to protect structures, then these private owners should be willing to share in some of the cost since they will be the primary beneficiaries — could be in-kind (eg piling small slash) as opposed to cash.

  6. We have a large and growing population of homes abutting the IPNF here in north Idaho. I am sure the several DFRs would love to get the funds to treat a WUI zone of 1500′ if only they were given the funds and staff needed to plan and accomplish this. But the fact is clear…that the do-nothing Congress we idiots have voted to represent us (HA!) have no interest in properly funding the USFS or NPS or BLM. They do, in my opinion, want these agencies to fail, thereby providing more “fuel” to the state-rights folks who drool over the prospect of taking over these federal lands. It is all politics, Larry. Has nothing to do with good forest management.

  7. I don’t know much about FS budget rules, but one way a community could take responsibility for protecting itself could be funding projects on national forest lands to reduce fire risk. (As long as federal laws are complied with of course, including being consistent with the forest plan.)

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