Are People Living in Forests the Problem?

Following the deaths of the firefighters, there are thoughtful pieces about whether we as a society are doing everything we can to make firefighters (and other people) as safe as we can in the event of ever-present wildfires. These are good and important conversations to have.

Jeff is an amazing photographer. Check out his website
Jeff is an amazing photographer. Check out his website

An unfortunate part of human nature is the tendency to try to find scapegoats to blame when bad things happen. It could be ethnic groups. It could be “corporations”. It could be those of the other political party. And sometimes there is cause and effect; those groups or people really do annoying things. Scapegoating is when you take a behavior that you disagree with, and turn it into “if we get rid of this group, our problems will go away.”

And to the issues of wildfire, we have “people who live in the woods”. Last Friday, I read this letter to the editor in the Denver Post.

When so many fine young people die, we must ask: Is the price too high? The time when folks could live in the mountains seems to be passing, at least for the foreseeable future. Maybe those who feel they must live there need to work with their private insurance companies to safeguard their property, and not expect the taxpayer to supply firefighter crews and airplanes. The money and the remarkable people who risk their lives are no longer “protecting the forests.” They are trying to save homes and businesses that are just not safe anymore. Perhaps the price is just too high.

Mark Parsons, Berthoud

In the course of recreation Friday and yesterday, (to Allenspark and Estes Park), I traveled through our forests. I encourage those interested to do the same thing in their areas. Because, guess what, not building new homes is not the answer to forest fires. In my area, they’re already there. So let’s take a trip.

I live in Golden, Colorado, within walking distance of downtown. A couple of years ago, a fire came out of the canyons and was stopped short of our subdivision. That fire is in the photo above. We don’t live in the mountains, nor with trees. Still wildfires.

Then as I leave home and progress up Golden Gate Canyon, we see the more classic 30 acre or so parcels with houses. They seem to be pretty much everywhere going up the canyon. At the top, towns and gas stations, convenience stores, fairgrounds, libraries. Going along 119 north, there are more cabins, resorts, campgrounds, church and scout camps, ski areas, towns, restaurants. My point is that 1) it’s too late to depopulate our mountains, 2) people like to recreate in mountains and have infrastructure associated with that recreation, 3) not building new houses interspersed among the old houses might be helpful but will not solve any “house protection” problems.

So..even if folks want to stop new homes and subdivisions from going in…well, that’s an OK desire and may help in some places.

But what we already have still exists. Stopping new development doesn’t seem like it will do much to solve our Colorado Front Range fire problems, as far as I can see. Is this another issue where the solutions differ based on local conditions?

For those of your in the fire-prone West, if you took a trip to your favorite recreational trail from your house, what would you see?

7 thoughts on “Are People Living in Forests the Problem?”

  1. Sharon, I apprciated your comments aout the wildfire situation. It would be helpful if more people would look at the issue the way you do. The fire problem in the West is extreemly complex and there is no simple solution. Blaming houses in the woods may be popular, but it is not the only problem, just one of many. If we are going to reduce fire losses and fire deaths, firefighters and citizens, we as ctizens of the West are going to need to take a deep breath, put aside the blame game and look at the reality of living in a fire prone part of the world. As you pointed out, it is not just the forests, but all vegetation and sturctures that can burn. We also need to understand that while fire can be of benefit, it also causes damage like detroyed soils, damaged watershed, loss of wildlife habitat, etc. Wildfire in the West is a social problem as much as it is a fuels problem or home in the woods problem.

    • Thanks, John. I agree with you that it is a social problem. This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but if it’s a social problem perhaps we should round up some social scientists and put them on a committee to decide what to do..
      We’d have to have:
      someone who understands homeowners and their motivations (lots of research on this)
      behavior of folks in fire organizations (lots of research on this)
      a political scientist. and …?

      Then if the FS, states and communities didn’t do what the committee came up with, they could be accused of not using “the best science.” 😉

  2. I fully agree, as is not surprising. I equate “fire danger” with other dangers in other places where people already live. The best equivalent is “crime danger”, where brave men and women risk their lives on a daily basis. Certainly, there are more deaths in law enforcement than in forest fire suppression. Yes, there are other options than simply moving people to other, safer areas.

    The idea that humans should never live in forests, in favor of “humanless wildlands” is a construction of the eco-community, not based in history. While some areas didn’t really have permanent residents, they were, indeed, occupied during the summers. They made areas safe by being proactive, “managing” their areas of residency. We have more tools than they had, and we should be able to use the right tool for the right piece of land.

    And yes, one of those tools is the conscious decision to not do anything, if appropriate. I prefer to think that it was a horrible mistake to send those Hotshots in there, and people must accept “human error” as a reason for this tragedy. That doesn’t mean being afraid to act on future wildfires. We just need to be smarter about what to do in new situations.

      • The big problem with people who think as you say, Larry, are that they are in control of our courts and elected officials. We can speculate how that came about, but it is also important to somehow do an end-run around this nonsense and put an end to all of this unnecessary bleeding. These people and most of their resource management methods have become proven failures during the past 25 years. How to engineer a return to common sense and experience (not the same thing at all as a “return to past conditions”) in the management of our common resources?


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