“I understand firefighter safety, but you have to put people on the fire.”


This from a resident near the Lolo Peak Fire – a fire that had recently killed one firefighter.  He added, “I’m tired of the smoke and I’m tired of the fire. I think there needs to be more accountability.”

I’m appalled by the sense of entitlement to protection of private property that this statement reveals, which I think helps illustrate the point I’ve been trying to make about who should pay to protect homes near national forests.  Sometimes that payment is measured in lives lost.

38 thoughts on ““I understand firefighter safety, but you have to put people on the fire.””

  1. Good point. Private land owners should be responsible to reduce fire risk on their property, and assume some risk for just being where they are. It’s a bit like building your home In a floodway.

  2. Hi Jon-
    As you may remember, I’ve commented extensively on here about what I say as a solution to the entitlement problem — the agency needs to wield it’s federalism stick and stop fighting in the urban interface until the states step up with zoning laws and funding mechanisms to reduce the federal burden. Evacuate and let the homes burn. I thought we were all about personal responsibility in the U.S.? No?

    I don’t think I’ve heard you solution. Care to share?

    • I don’t know, Eric, I used to carpool with a Fire Person in D.C., and I remember something about a congressperson asking Jim Lyons to put an air tanker to help with a fire on Long Island- even when no one thought it would help. But it makes me wonder what the Western Govs are thinking. I bet they have a position paper on wildfire.

      • No, I get it Sharon. There are many in the agency who gain. Disfunction in any form usually only persists when someone is benefitting from it.

        • That wasn’t about the agency and who benefits within the agency. It was about the broader context of people who want fires put out and the political will of those folks who don’t want fires burning up their communities.

      • I’m not sure exactly what you are looking for Sharon, but you might find it here:

        This is related to the point of the original post:

        “PRIORITY 3:
        Promote efforts to support fire-adapted communities, reduce fuels and manage wildfire risks, and ensure a coordinated and effective wildfire response, coordinating where appropriate with parallel efforts such as the National Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy (all partners):
        A3D: Incentivize local governments to take voluntary actions to support the creation and expansion of fire-adapted communities and resilience, including the promotion of education, fuels management projects and improved integration of community wildfire protection plans with land use decisions when compatible with local goals. Provide additional analyses to help communities
        evaluate the full costs of suppression associated with development in the wildland urban interface (WUI).” (Yes!)

        WGA generally supports fuel reduction anywhere, and promotes the use of prescribed fire. On wildfires specifically, they seem to be focused mostly on ending federal “fire borrowing.”

  3. One could say the same thing about law enforcement in crime-ridden areas. City folks love their ‘subsidies’ against crime where they choose to live. Yes, there are ways for city people to mitigate the crime in their neighborhoods, themselves, instead of depending on police to make their streets safe.

    • Oh my! This is far from forestry but-most people who live in high crime area wish they could afford to move to safer areas. And there are many neighborhood watch groups and faith based groups trying to make places safer. Yes there is some gentrification bias but that’s minimal per this issue.
      And those folks help the tax base.
      I was born in Ferguson MO and now live in St Louis- its complicated.

      • It’s also true that when people write about “moving people out of wildfire areas” they tend to think of people building second homes, not the folks with a singlewide whose family has lived there for 100 years and who live off a couple of part-time jobs.

      • They are similar issues, especially when rural living is framed as being subsidized. Most everyone has subsidies but, some people want to take them away from rural residents. The California Fire Tax was a perfect example of punishing people for living where they live. I was just comparing Eric’s statement about letting homes burn until zoning is changed, with crime issues. Ditto for people who live near rivers…. and earthquake faults, etc, etc, etc. Blaming the Forest Service’s high costs of wildfires on rural residents is disingenuous.

        • “Blaming the Forest Service’s high costs of wildfires on rural residents is disingenuous.”

          Wow, talk about a sudden shift in framing. I don’t believe I mentioned a word about subsidies. I was talking about who the proper tax burden falls on. If anyone is being “subsidized” it’s the Counties. They get to maintain the tax windfall generated by the ever expanding WUI by rubber stamping ecologically absurd development proposals. But does the cost of cleaning up the mess fall on the Counties?
          We all know the answer to that.

          Ok, granted, this is a “forest planning” blog. We talk a lot about how forest planning impacts communities. However, I think having an M.S. in bioregional planning and community design qualifies me to say that if we’re not looking beyond the trees to see how community planning is impacting the forest, then we’re not seeing the forest.

          Rural communities have been wildly successful in framing this as a “Federal” problem. As I said earlier, dysfunction almost always continues when the person complaining about the disfunction is benefitting from it somehow. Think about it.

          • Thanks for coming back and participating in this blog Eric. I value your input and perspectives. As you can see, some folks are pretty adept at sudden shifts in framing…so thanks for calling attention to that.

            • Oh, like many I suspect, I’m always keeping tabs on the discussions. Actually having a full time job now forces me to more carefully choose my battles. But thanks Matt. Nice to feel appreciated 🙂

          • The comment wasn’t directed at you, and it wasn’t even on a reply to you, Eric. It was simply a counter to the idea that all the fault for high fire costs is due to people living in the WUI. Some people seem to think that it would be much cheaper if we could just let wildfires burn, without those pesky humans living there. That idea just isn’t true. Turning a $6000 lightning fire into a $100,000,000 firestorm is really what is costly. Yes, there have been examples of fire captains refusing to, unreasonably, risk lives to save a home. You cannot burn up a million dollars saving a single home. The anti-management people love to blame “mega-mansions” for the high fire costs. They don’t mention the costs of WFU and “we need more fire on the ground”. “Preserving” a tiny WUI ensures that fire safety is limited and that homes will burn. Hey, even insurance companies are canceling policies for fire insurance, probably because fires are allowed to become huge, intense and unmanageable.

            AND, I do not benefit from ANY Forest Service activity, whatsoever. I’m jobless, homeless and disabled. Think about it.

            • My apologies Larry, I guess I just assumed that a reply in a comment I started was, well, a reply to a comment I started. Whodathunkit?

              Anyway, you said “It was simply a counter to the idea that all the fault for high fire costs is due to people living in the WUI.” That’s not a counter Larry. Saying something like “No, counties don’t reap all the benefit from USFS fire protection because of XYZ reasons is a counterargument. What you did was change the subject to a “frame” you feel more comfortable arguing, and thereby, attempted to derail the thread.

              Thank you for your participation.

  4. I think the common thread in Caroline’s and Sharon’s points is how much choice people have in where they live and how much ability they have to reduce the risk of living there. I’ll speculate that a large chunk of the WUI residents are there because of choices they made within the recent past when there was enough information to know they were taking a risk (and they know how to reduce the risk now, but often don’t do it).

    So Eric, my suggestions have been for state and local responsibility to regulate home location and defensible space in exchange for fire protection. Maybe states could require defensible space as a condition of obtaining home insurance. If the federal government billed state and local government for its cost of protecting private land it might create more of an incentive. It may mean that only rich people can afford to live in the woods, but there’s nothing new about the concept of wealth-effect in America’s housing.

    • So yeah, we agree. All I’m saying is that it will never happen because the Counties benefit from the current arrangement, and the only way to break the current arrangement is through the persuasive power of reverse Federalism. Threaten to remove the piggy bank and watch them fall in line with your proposal.

      • Geez, Eric. Can you have a civil discussion without getting nasty with folks that dare to disagree with you? Oh sorry, I think I changed the frame on you.

        • I’m quite pleasant when people play by the well established rules of argumentation. I get pointed when people stray b/c a wonderfully useful blog such as this degrades into a stitch and bitch when people don’t.

            • I’m angry about lots of stuff in the world these days, but I’m certainly not blaming Larry for it. For whatever that’s worth….

  5. I have witnessed a similar sense of entitlement when people rely on Forest Service-maintained roads to reach their homes. They complain about potholes and want the FS to fix every single one so they can drive faster on the road. And they complain that when there was an ice storm that the Forest Service did not come out and plow a 30+ mile long road. And, they complain too when the FS cannot protect their home from fire because their driveway is a death trap. As I commented on another post – folks in the WUI need to take full responsibility for living there. The Applegate Partnership in Oregon had a small booklet that they would hand out to new residents in the Applegate area – it laid out the customs in the area that folks migrating from urban areas or other places might not be familiar with in rural Oregon – open range, courtesy on gravel roads, pedestrian courtesy where there are no sidewalks, etc. Seems like that might be a good idea for realtors or home sellers or informal homeowner associations to provide something like that for folks that live in or move into the WUI – it is their responsibility to maintain their home/property in a Firewise type of condition; do not rely on other agencies to put out fires that affect your home or your property – they often have other priorities for limited firefighting resources; know your escape route if you need to evacuate – and maintain it so it is safe to use, etc.

    • My county (El Paso County Colorado) has some of that.. it’s called the Code of the West and covers roads and fires..

      The physical characteristics of your property can be positive and negative. Trees are a wonderful environmental amenity, but can also involve your home in a forest fire. Building at the top of a forested draw should be considered as dangerous as building in a flash flood area. Defensible perimeters are very helpful in protecting buildings from forest fire and inversely can protect the forest from igniting if your house catches on fire. If you start a forest fire, you are responsible for paying for the cost of extinguishing that fire. For further information, you can contact the El Paso County Emergency Services Department.

      It’s pretty comprehensive ( http://bcc.elpasoco.com/Pages/CodeoftheWest.aspx )

  6. I’m surprised that apparently Oregon is the only state that pays its way.
    Rural landowners pay 50% of the state fire budget and the other 50% is paid out of the general Fund, which rural landowners contribute to also, all based on a per acre rate for either grazing or timber. BLM land on the west side is protected by the state and is assessed actual costs per acre. State resources are often assisting USFS, as they are now, and often under a mutual aid agreement. Structures are generally protected by city and rural districts, or during large fires, task forces made up of regional city and rural departments. If the fire originates on USFS then they are often billed for additional costs, but if the fire originates on private then the state pays. The exception is when it burns onto USFS managed lands and the agency doesn’t want aggressive suppression, then they take over operations and assume most of the associated cost moving forward. Rarely is the agency spending money to protect structural assets on private.

  7. We also pay taxes to the local fire department and our countywide forest fire fighters, who are excellent at putting fires out fast, before they get to big to handle. Not like the FS who likes to let them burn, then spends a few days bringing in a team and ends up spending millions.
    Strange how we spend years of planning forest thinning and restoration on a few thousand acres that often gets reduced to ashes in an few afternoons.

    • Not my experience at all Bob, so I’ll spend some time dissecting:

      1) “Not like the FS who likes to let them burn … .” My better half is a fuels specialist for the USFS. She would definitely “like to let them burn” because our forests are a mess. Science supports this. In the close to ten years now that we’ve been together, not once on our zone has the FS “let them burn.” This causes both of us consternation.

      2) “spends a few days bringing in a team and ends up spending millions.” Yes Bob, holding back the tide is inordinately expensive. Whereas, allowing nature to clean house is, well, relatively cheaper. Also cheaper to make local rules adapted to the local landscape, as the Oregon example stands testimony.

      3) “Strange how we spend years of planning forest thinning and restoration on a few thousand acres that often gets reduced to ashes in an few afternoons.” And no, it’s not strange at all. For as we are constantly reminded, and Steinbeck thoughtfully observed “The best laid plans of mice and men so often go awry.”

      I know its generally unthinkable, but it possible, that considerations greater than chasing the buck might be good for both forest and community health.

      • Eric, while its relatively cheaper to allow nature to “clean house”, from many’s view point it’s even cheaper to allow harvest with no more severity than wildfires in the current climate. This also would generate income to the agency to help offset the expense of suppressing fires outside wilderness and adjacent to private boundaries. If it is acceptable to have critical habitat destroyed by fire, then conducting harvest operations that effect but do not destroy the same habitat would seem to be a win win. But then we get back to “what is the true agenda of those against harvesting merchantable timber?”
        At the current level of infrastructure both in the harvest and manufacturing sectors, much more habitat will still burn then be impacted by harvesting, because the timbered acres burned far exceed the current harvest capabilities and current milling is quite close to current private harvest levels. This opinion doesn’t come from a want to increase the wood flow, since that will actually lower the price of logs for private landowners, it comes from a desire to get our forests back into a healthier state. Letting nature clean house under the current conditions in many opinions – mine included- is reckless and irresponsible. If this was 1910 and the idea of letting hundreds of lives be lost to wildfire had been acceptable then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion, but it wasn’t. We have 100+ years of in-growth that will not fit the “natural” results of letting nature clean house.
        I’m curious though, since I’m not a scientist, what would be the implications of not suppressing fires not threatening private property for the next 50 years? How much critical habitat would be lost and how would the T&E species come out on the other side? We could literally leave the Forest Service lands as unmanaged. Stop all maintenance of roads eliminate all jobs that are connected with the Agency and let nature take it’s course. Fire suppression could be done by the States at the boundaries. Taxes would be cut by billions naturally!

        • Forester, I’m pretty sure that there is at least one modeling study of spotted owl in California with and without fuel treatment that came out that if there was a fire, you were better off to have done the fuel treatment if not then no. That is probably a serious oversimplification. But I found it through googling so it should be easy to find.

          • There have been several studies on the local/basin level. All show that minimizing disturbance to the older structure is best, but several were done in the early 90’s and they used fuel reduction to maintain habitat. What I’m curious about, since many want fire back in, under current conditions, to let fires burn across an entire forest over the course of a few decades, what are the implications? We’ve already seen on many large fires that the highest intensity is in the reserves of critical habitat. The Klamath in 2014 was a clear example. The Biscuit Fire would be another good study on T&E displacement, since several of the stands that survived the Silver Fire in ’87 burnt in 2002, and several more are burning now. The ability to grow 120 year old stands in 30-40 years, hasn’t been developed yet. The Umpqua has burned up 70% of the Tiller District since 2002, with another large remaining chunk going as we discuss this. After each large fire over the last 15 years, we hear how it was a mix in severity and good for the forest. But what we are seeing is as time goes on is we are loosing much more habitat than we are gaining. Looking at one fire while ignoring the obvious compounding of 15-30 year fire regimes, is now becoming very apparent on the ground.
            The point being, is it really about saving species? From many of the discussions I’ve had in meetings and from post on here, I would say it’s more about opposition to commercial harvest regardless of the true impacts on the species that were used as poster children. More concerning is the implication that human life/property is of a lesser value if you choose to own/live near federal land.

            • It also has not been proven that former goshawk and spotted owl nesting habitat can grow back, in today’s world, full of dumb humans. There are no studies about how to best grow back old growth habitat. Just hoping large groups of big trees will grow back, without burning up is a bad idea. Again, we see those ‘deep blue’ ecology types ignoring the ever-present human impacts and stupidity. There are dozens and dozens of ways that humans start ‘unnatural’ wildfires in difficult places, during difficult conditions. This situation will never change but, ecologists always find ways to ignore the obvious.

            • “what would be the implications of not suppressing fires not threatening private property for the next 50 years?”

              Some form of that question is one that should be addressed during the forest planning process when alternatives are considered. I don’t think it’s necessarily correct to assume that fires can continue at current rates until everything has burned. Over time, I would think that ignitions would become less likely and spread more difficult because of the “fuel reduction” brought about by these fires. I also think there are enough scientists who don’t have an agenda that we would start getting some warnings from them about threats to species caused by fires. (I mentioned a National Wildlife Federation article along these lines, but it wasn’t convincing.)

              “implication that human life/property is of a lesser value if you choose to own/live near federal land”

              I don’t see that implication anywhere. My point was more the opposite – that government should not facilitate people living dangerously.

            • Sorry, you obviously know a lot more than I do. It would be interesting to look at the habitat changes through time, as you are suggesting. I’m (so) not a GIS person but it seems like it would be possible with information that is public. If you or other were to look at that, we could publish it here and others would be interested, I’m sure.

        • I see your point Forester. But please reference mine above. What you are talking about is akin to holding back the tides. Sure, what you’re saying may hold true in a very narrow context. But when we start talking about the ecological integrity of our forests beyond the 100th Meridian, the scale moots your point. It is simply logistically and economically not feasible.

          Example, I was recently recreating over on the Helena/Deerlodge NF. This is East slope rockies country. Water has traditionally been scarce, but the onset of climate change has dried it out even further. Trees got stressed … particularly old decadent lodgepole that nobody was going to mechanically treat b/c who the hell wants to harvest lodgepole. BUT! … Fire suppression went on apace. Well, the trees were weakened, the beetles came in, and now there are millions of acres of dead lodge pole, fir, and doug fir. What survived? Ponderosa and Larch … dry site adapted species. So now, without harvest, and without fire, nature has essentially accomplished the same goal. It is adapting. The longer our forestry practices continue to try and fit square peg capitalist harvest outcomes into the round hole of ecological health, the longer we prolong the inevitable.

          At the risk of alienating the many foresters who contribute to this blog … I think your experience narrows your ability to see the larger picture. The solution to this topic, this thread, does not lie in forest “science.” It lies in forest and community policy. Thus, said discussions only distract. So many of the “old guard” foresters today remind me of neoliberal economists. Sure, they have a theory about the way the world works that they love to tell everyone is “backed by science.” But there are other, better economic theories out there that are actually better for the people the economic theory should be helping. But alas, our educational system cranked out a bajillion of these economists and until their gone, their errant ideas will continue to hold sway b/c as a historical artifact of privilege, people still listen to old white guys in authority. Krugmann or Rogoff … I don’t care what side of the ideological side they are on. They’re idiots. Until we function under an economic theory that accounts for the 2nd law of thermodynamics, it’s all bullshit.

          Analogously, foresters that began practicing prior to the impacts of climate change science on the field are likely beyond their “sell by” date.

          • Again, no mention of terrible impacts upon humans who have to suffer from smoke, flooding, erosion and GHG’s from dying and burning forests. We’ve seen thick smoke persist for many hundreds of miles, impacting other States and, even, other countries. I was once on assignment on the Salmon-Challis National Forest, and several times the thick smoke from California fires impacted the area.

          • Eric, most of the old forestry types are trying to relate their experiences of things that happen on the ground to what people want. People buy wood and wood products. People who are concerned about the environment developed FSC and CSA and still buy wood products. If wood products can be removed from the land and also accomplish other objectives, such as reducing fuels to help fire suppression, why not?
            You don’t have to be a theoretician to ask these questions, let alone a “neoliberal economist”. You can simply ask, “if it’s good to buy local produce, why not local wood?”. There are observations that elders make that are wise, due to their experiences when things and ideas were different. In other words, watching as the ideas about forests change through time, and how forests themselves change through time, and working on the land and seeing how the best-laid plans work out.. well it gives me as an elder a great sense of humility about predicting the future. “Ecosystems are more complex than we can think”.. until we want to couple regional climate models to veg models to wildlife models and so on..so as an elder I have seen the same people say “ecosystems are so complex that you shouldn’t touch them” and yet “we can model them under future climate conditions that are themselves unknown.” I think there was about a 20-30 year difference there, but I remember it clearly.

            I appreciate your ideas and thanks for your contributions, but I think you got carried away on the economics thing and not really thinking about the fact that foresters are almost never theoreticians. And “white male privilege”? I see more of that in the science biz than the forestry biz.

      • Just for fun, since I have the time, I thought I would respond to your comments.
        Many times I have read that this fire is ” being monitored for resource benefit”. Isn’t this the same as letting it burn?
        Several times this year I have read where the fire was more than “they could handle”,
        Such as the Chetco Bar fire, 1/4 acre with a snag on fire, is now a 6,000 acre fire with two teams monitoring it. I guess you call this cleaning house, but what is really happening is more “ancient” forest is being turned into future brush. Maybe that is the desired outcome?
        And why add the comment about chasing the buck? Who is chasing the buck? The firefighters, loggers,
        FS administrators, greedy mill operators?
        What I really would like is to see us take care of our public forests so they are green and healthy.


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