Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

More Moral Hazard Than Fire Hazard: The Responsibility of Homeowners in the WUI

Like shit, fire happens.

In the backcountry, fire is wonderful, necessary, and inevitable. “Wildfire is to western forests as rain is to rainforests,” writes Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, in the November 2017 report “A New Climate- and Human-Influenced Wildfire Era for Western Forests.” DellaSala continues:

Soon after a wildfire, forests undergo a remarkable transformation. Large dead and remaining live trees, native plants, and seed sources act as “biological legacies” that “lifeboat” a forest from new growth to old growth over a period of decades to centuries. Biological legacies provide habitat for scores of pollinators, songbirds and woodpeckers, small mammals, and big game species that readily populate burn areas, including many species that thrive in them. Burned forests also store carbon long-term in dead trees that slowly decompose while new vegetation rapidly sequesters (absorbs) atmospheric carbon. When a severe fire occurs in a mature forest that is structurally complex (large trees and abundant vegetation) it generates a “complex early seral” or “snag forest.” These newly created forests support a rich assortment of plants and wildlife as diverse as the more heralded old-growth forests.

In the frontcountry, fire is awful, unnecessary, and preventable. The more urban the landscape, the less the likelihood of fire. Society has systems (codes, institutions, practices) long in place that make fire in developed areas a relatively rare event, and the fires that do happen are generally contained to one building.

The biggest problem with fire occurs where the frontcountry meets the backcountry, the bureaucratically named wildland-urban interface (WUI: “woo-ee”). The term has been codified in a federal statute to include not only human communities at risk but also adjacent federal forestland. In some cases, entire counties have been classified as being in the WUI. The trouble with this approach is that a focus on taking actions on private lands to effectively reduce the risk of buildings burning is lost in the noise of vast thinning (pronounced “logging”) of federal public forestlands. Thinning is not a cure-all for the imprudence of private building owners but a palliative distraction.

Alas, Most Sylvan Lodging Is Not Multnomah Falls Lodge

While fire agencies can send personnel to try to save a house imprudently built and maintained in a forest, and while it is possible for firefighters to save buildings where no steps were taken to reduce the risk of wildfire, they may not make it. They may have other higher priorities, like Multnomah Falls Lodge.

The Forest Service owns Multnomah Falls Lodge. Even though the agency preaches defensible space, it did not practice it on its own building. The lodge has a wooden shake roof (yes, quite historical and all, but there is far less history if the building burns). The agency allowed vegetation to grow to the very edges of the lodge, and a propane tank was sited far too close and aboveground.

  Multnomah Falls Lodge has an extremely flammable wooden roof of the era.   The Forest Service spent extraordinary sums to save the iconic lodge from its own imprudent management.  Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives.

Multnomah Falls Lodge has an extremely flammable wooden roof of the era. The Forest Service spent extraordinary sums to save the iconic lodge from its own imprudent management. Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives.

Losing Multnomah Falls Lodge to the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge would have been extremely poor public relations for the agency that brought you Smokey Bear. Multnomah Falls receives between 1 and 1.5 million visitors annually. Since the Forest Service has a blank check from Congress (for all fires), no money was spared to save the lodge.

As flames (and more important, airborne embers) approached the lodge, the Forest Service poured on water (pronounced “money”). The Forest Service brought in a Eugene-Springfield fire battalion chief who ordered up a ladder truck and four fire engines from Portland, as well as five water tenders from Forest Grove, Gaston, Tualatin Valley, and Hillsboro. Everything within 40 yards of the lodge and the lodge roof itself were thoroughly and repeatedly soaked.

A typical private homeowner in or near a forest should not rely upon such an extraordinary effort to save an imprudently sited or maintained dwelling.

  Multnomah Falls Lodge before the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017. Notice that the forest closely surrounds the lodge on three sides, a very undefensible space.  Source: Google.

Multnomah Falls Lodge before the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017. Notice that the forest closely surrounds the lodge on three sides, a very undefensible space. Source: Google.

Disaster Declarations: No Substitute for Personal Responsibility

The economist priesthood has a term relevant here: moral hazard. It means a “lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences.” It is often applied to Wall Street bankers, backed by government, playing with other people’s money. The rewards of profit are privatized, but the risks of loss are socialized. Moral hazard is an appropriate concept to apply to owners of private (whether first, second, or third) homes in the WUI.

Choosing to live in or near a forest in the American West that is periodically sculpted by fire is comparably as imprudent as choosing to live below sea level in New Orleans or just above it in the Florida Keys or in Tornado Alley or in the Mississippi River floodplain or in the storm-surge zones of greater New York. While millions of people do it, they should not be shielded from the consequences of their imprudent choices by declarations of natural disaster when very predictable though aperiodic tempests of nature strike. People should prepare for such inevitable events.

Please do not get me wrong. I feel the suffering my fellow Americans, be they impoverished Puerto Ricans and Virgin Islanders or affluent Houstonians. (Though I must admit to relishing the irony of a climate change–intensified Hurricane Harvey raining its fury upon the American city that epitomizes the fossil-fuel industrial complex.)

However, it is simply not fiscally, socially, economically, or environmentally desirable for the federal government to pay people to rebuild in the same place—at least without dramatic improvements in preparedness and, in any case, not more than once.

Whether the event is flood, hurricane, tornado, storm surge, drought, or fire, there needs to be more personal responsibility among private property owners, less post-event largesse from the federal government, and more regulation from local governments so private property owners do not free-ride on other American taxpayers.

An extreme but illustrative example is an actual home in Houston valued at $114,000 that was rebuilt sixteen times in eighteen years for a total of $860,000 in payouts from the National Flood Insurance Program. (I must note that Houston prides itself on its affordable housing, which it attributes to the lack of zoning regulations.)

No one has totaled the cost per house of the massive expenditures of federal fire-fighting monies that are spent defending private homes that were inadequately constructed and maintained to be resistant to fire, but the number is large. This is not to mention the number of firefighters put in harm’s way to save lives and property that should not have been at such risk.

Me Too, Brutus

For the record, I live in a WUI. My home is on ~6 acres outside of Ashland in a woodland of Oregon white and California black oaks. The roof is metal and the siding is a nonflammable composite of wood and cement. The windows are triple pane (for energy efficiency, but also so they are far less likely to blow in due to nearby heat and thus allow in the flames). The attic vents have been screened to exclude embers. I don’t have a wooden deck with firewood (pronounced “kindling”) underneath. While I’ve generally taken all the recommended steps in terms of the kinds and control of vegetation near the house, I do admit to having decided to keep a giant old-growth Oregon white oak (mostly, but not quite totally, a snag—great bird and bug habitat!) that is a bit closer to the house than is totally prudent. I keep the brush at bay along the driveway so the fire trucks can arrive without delay. I pay taxes to a rural fire district, but a good portion of private land owners in WUIs do not.

For the privilege of not living in town, I live with an increased risk of fire on my property and of losing my house to fire. I’m confident that when (not if) a fire sweeps through, my house will survive. I’m less confident that—as the oak woodland around my place is rapidly resetting its ecological succession to a very early seral condition—if I’m standing on my concrete patio, I will not be scared shitless. It is a trade-off that I acknowledge and embrace.

Actually, I won’t likely be on that patio, as my evacuation plan is to retreat with my laptop and our dog to a local brewery and have a sampler of IPAs, perhaps preceded by a filthy Tanqueray martini and followed with a gin and tonic.

After the flames subside, we’ll move back in and repair any superficial damage.

  Prudently, the iconic Benson Foot Bridge (shown) at Multnomah Falls, built in 1914, is made of nonflammable reinforced concrete. A wooden pedestrian bridge approaching the falls did burn.  Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives.

Prudently, the iconic Benson Foot Bridge (shown) at Multnomah Falls, built in 1914, is made of nonflammable reinforced concrete. A wooden pedestrian bridge approaching the falls did burn. Source: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives.