About The Resilience Institute

The Resilience Institute is part of WWU Huxley’s College of the Environment. It facilitates scholarship, education, and practice on reducing social and physical vulnerability through sustainable community development, as a way to minimize loss and enhance recovery from disasters in Washington State and its interdependent global communities.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Media and Communities Resilient to Wildfires

This week, the media has covered the many facets of the 2007 California wildfire experience. Fortunately, national media coverage of these events did not focus solely on personal suffering, human vulnerability, and heroism, importantly as these stories may be. This week, reporters from a range of national news agencies dug deeply into the individual and community decisions that went into the making of this Californian disaster.

In “Rethinking Fire Policy in the Tinderbox Zone” Johnson and McKinley’s article in the New York Times suggests that with 1.5 million acres lost to wildfires in the last four years may indicate a failed state and national policy of fire-suppression policy. Rather than reducing wildfires, they argued that suppression reduces the natural process of underbrush burn out, thereby priming the forest for large-scale wildfires that cannot easily be controlled. On Tell Me More, Ron Lester, a democratic pollster suggested that bad land use management contributed to the damage experienced in both Hurricane Katrina and the current 2007 California Wildfires.

Max Moritz, a fire ecologist at UC Berkeley, told National Public Radio (NPR) offered a different perspective. He suggested that better environmental stewardship like prescribed burns and vegetation management is crucial, but not the full answer. Both the fire suppression and the forest management models create the lure of a “safe forest.” Many of the newest development in the state has occurred in that danger zone where urban architecture infringes upon wild space. Rather than carefully placing buffer zones between compact communities and forests, these developments often are about the very forest that can threaten them.

Along side environmental stewardship, building code regulations are also a crucial part of reducing vulnerability to wildfires. Strikingly, James Smalley of Firewise told NPR listeners that patterns of individual home destruction are clearly evident from aerial photographs of the region. In many places, combustible housing materials has made homes more likely to burn than the surrounding vegetation. Yet, even the best built home – the one with clay tile roof, heat resistant siding and implosion resistant windows, sprinkler systems and careful configuration of decking, vegetation and venting – will likely burn if the homes on either side do not have these measures. Max Moritz cautioned that homes may be only as safe as their neighbors. It will be years before the majority of the housing stock in the area incorporates these features, but these stricter requirements are a positive outcome of these earlier tragedies.

After years of wildfire destruction, some communities are incorporating fire resistant concepts into their community development. Jeff Brady of NPR reported on experimental “shelter-in-place” communities with well placed golf courses and other fire breaks integrated into the land use plan. These communities - where all buildings have tile roofs and strict rules on planted vegetation are enforced - were left undamaged. Nearby neighborhoods without fire-resistant building and land use planning measures burned.

After many disasters, we highlight human missteps. In People News, Jamie Lee Curtis acknowledged that the residents like her - people who wanted to live at the interface the urban-wilderness interface without considering wildfire threats - were to blame for the disaster. Yet often we rebuild in a way that recreates our own vulnerability to future events. The 2007 fires will likely strengthen policies like fire-resistant building code regulations enacted after earlier fires. It may also lead to new adoption in communities that has thus far balked at the few percent increase in construction cost.

As consensus grows in regards to the truly human origins of these particular wildfire disasters - not just among those of us who work in disaster risk reduction but also among the public – communities must continue to move from understanding fire vulnerability, to taking actions and enacting policies that will individually and collectively reducing vulnerability to these natural hazards.

Combining strict land use planning, building code requirements, and effective environmental stewardship will save lives, save homes, and vastly reduce the expense of managing and recovering from these events in the future. The media has a vital role to play in reminding us that the burnt out homes and the disrupted communities, were not a direct result of a raging wildfire, but of the choices we make about where and how to live as individuals and as communities. We all need to affirm, repeat and act upon this perspective.

Some national media coverage of the 2007 California Wildfires, focusing on disaster reduction through environmental stewardship, land use planning and codes.

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Erica said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erica said...

Great article, still relevant!