Building in the line of fire

You’ve heard it many times before. Residing in the backcountry puts your home at risk with wildfires. You’re on the front line, staring down dry, desert chaparral, drought, and a sea of residential units. The stakes are high. So why do you keep building out there?
Government agencies packaged the concept of backcountry living into a neat three-letter acronym: WUI, short for Wildland-Urban Interface. This, as the name implies, describes the imagined boundary between the backcountry and urban development. Oftentimes these areas are likely to experience their fair share of wildfires. To build there is an act of arrogance. Yet, your big house goes up, your sweeping panoramic views are created, and, time and again, your big house burns to the ground.
Sun up. Sun down.
Houses are constructed in areas throughout the state where intense Santa Ana winds are funneled over hilltops and through canyons. Wind speeds have been known to match those of the strongest hurricane. It happened during the recent round of fires in L.A., during what many deemed the worst fire in city history.
Like us, the woods require a house cleaning to feel rejuvenated. We choose to deny nature her right to burn; to clean around the edges. Because of our failed fire suppression methodology, wildfires are now historically bigger and more intense than they’ve ever been.
I’m assuming you know this. Your insurance agent mentioned something about the WUI and wildfires, right?
I’m supposed to feel sorry for you when your backcountry, fire-prone house burns down, but I don’t. I know you lost your dream pad way out there. Your family is temporarily displaced. Your possessions are gone. There you were, helpless and dependent on Hot Shots and elite firefighters from around the county. Losing it all is difficult to grasp.
But you built your house out there in the first place. You knew better. You didn’t heed the numerous warnings. You didn’t properly prepare your property. I liken it to living in a well-documented flood plain. When the fire levy bursts, all hell breaks loose.
Let’s make certain one thing is absolutely clear: I am not insensitive to the plight of fire victims. All humans deserve a roof over their head. What I’m calling for is a total re-evaluation of our relationship with fire and rampant development.
People are shocked and appalled when the woods go up in flames. I’m shocked and appalled when the state drains already ailing coffers fighting wildfires that simply wish to burn. Billions of dollars are wasted because people feel the need to develop the backcountry. They feel entitled to superior wildfire protection. The government is fighting fires that don’t need to be fought, for people who don’t need to live in the WUI. In reality, the War on Drugs is more effective than the War on Wildfires, and that speaks volumes.
The solution? Basically, you are to fend for yourself out there. Sure, if your house goes up because of a faulty electrical circuit, phone the nearest fire crew. But why should taxpayers in a failing state economy foot the bill to save your house … again?
The scenario is all too common. Firefighters douse the flame, as they always seem to do after a long, hard-fought battle. Then what? Following the futile media-fueled victory party, my assumption is you’ll keep building, this time bigger and “better.” As always, the fires will keep roasting the backcountry like clockwork. You’ll be right where you left off, crying for state emergency aid and advanced firefighting methods. It’s irritating when the community sentimentally applauds rebuilding efforts in the same spot your house burned down.
Don’t fool yourself believing in all these “fire proofing” techniques. You’re only marginally safer now that you’ve sealed your vents and installed “fire proof” siding. You’re missing the point. The more we suppress wildfires, the bigger they’ll get. The closer we live to big fires, the more risk. Essentially, your house is a gigantic pile of sticks for the hungry inferno. It’s simple.
Be safe out there.

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Sue L. March 13, 2009 at 8:00 am

I wonder if you’d be willing to say this to a fire victims face?

Eric Murtaugh March 13, 2009 at 9:22 am


I’d be willing to have a civil discussion with a fire victim. How else are we to further the WUI dialogue? As I mentioned in my column, I am sympathetic to a fire victim’s plight, but feel we as a culture need to find a solution to the wildfire versus development debate.

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