The forest fire season is off to an early start in the West this year, reflecting the fact that mountain snowpacks are below normal for a fourth year in a row. This is especially true in the Southwest, where fires have already erupted in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Some parts of the last state have only 20% of the average springtime snowpack. This means that they are seeing mid-summer conditions two months early.
There have been two fires just west of Denver this spring. The Snaking Fire (forest fires, like hurricanes, are named) near Bailey, Colorado, was started by some high school boys smoking in the woods, burned 2,600 acres and threatened some 1,000 homes — though none were lost. It cost the taxpayers $2.6 million to fight, those resources mostly devoted to saving property. The lightning-caused Black Mountain Fire near Conifer burned only 300 acres, but affected 2,400 people who were evacuated from nine subdivisions totaling 700 homes. It cost $1.4 million to fight. The latter fire was only 25 miles from downtown Denver. There were other blazes in New Mexico, among them the Dalton Fire near Santa Fe, which burned 800 acres within fifteen miles of the chic city’s watershed, and caused the evacuation of 300 people. The conditions in New Mexico are so dry that the Santa Fe National Forest is now closed to recreational use and may remain so for the entire summer.
In the case of the Colorado fires, twenty years ago they would have burned through a combination of public land (the Pike National Forest) and private tracts that were mostly “open space” ranchland with only a scattering of homes. Today, the sprawl of suburban Denver has spread into the foothills of the mountains west of the city. (Douglas County, Colorado, for instance, is the fastest growing in the nation.) Denver is now a megalopolis, and for a hundred miles north to south from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs large subdivisions of thousands of homes abut the mountains making for what U.S. Forest Service fire folks call “the urban wildland interface”; in other words, the suburbs now border a backcountry of timbered wilderness that tends to catch fire. These homes were built in what the Denver Post’s curmudgeon columnist Ed Quillen has called “The Stupid Zones.”
Quillen’s contention — elaborated on in a number of pieces — is that it is idiotic to build homes (especially those rustic-looking log trophy homes with cedar-shake roofs) in places that are periodically raked over by wildfire. Or to build them in the historic paths of avalanches or the flood plains of rivers. But the various Stupid Zones all have one thing in common: they sure are pretty places to build a home.
Suburban development around western cities in the last couple of decades has been haphazard at best. Careful local zoning and planning procedures have never been a western forte, maybe thanks in part to the boom-bust history of the West. There is still a lot of private land out here, a safety valve of sheer open space to fill up during the economic good times such as we saw in the 1990s. And like the movie Field of Dreams, it’s been a case of “If you build it, they will come” and live in “the urban wildland interface.”
During the same 1990s that saw the West become the fastest growing region in the country, the Clinton Administration through its minions in the U.S. Department of Agriculture — Secretary Dan Glickman and U.S. Forest Service Director Mike Dombeck — lowered the allowed annual timber harvest on the national forests from roughly 12 billion board feet to 3 billion by the end of the decade, a 75% reduction. This — along with Interior Secretary’s Bruce Babbitt’s stealing of 4 million acres of previously multiple-use public land to make a score of new national monuments — kept the environmental lobby mollified, as it remained one of Clinton’s most dependable constituencies. It also put loggers out work and closed lumber mills and left roughly 40 million acres regionwide a brush-choked mess begging to burn. The irony is that many Green western Democrats are going to lose their new Stupid Zone homes this summer.
The West being predominantly arid will burn — if you give it a few decades — everywhere. Fuels such as brush and small trees proliferate, and periodically fire comes through and cleans house, either via one of Mother Nature’s lightning strikes, or blazes manmade.
Burning 8.4 million acres, the infamous 2000 fire season was the worst in fifty years. It cost the American taxpayer $2 billion to fight it. Most of this money was used to protect private property, yet still 852 “structures” were lost. The 2000 season will be a yardstick for measuring the severity of western fire seasons in the 21st century. The fires of 2002 have already scorched 500,000 acres as of mid-May. This summer will be one of closed national forests and smoldering subdivisions.
The fires of the Stupid Zones are the fires next time.
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