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Wildfires and Us: A burning discussion

Published on 7/23/2022
An interested group of Montgomery County residents gathered at Wabash College last week to view and discuss the Green Issues film “Built to Burn.” The Green Issues 2022 film series is co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County and the Wabash College Library. Everyone is invited to attend these free and intellectually stimulating events. Through the words of residents, scientists, and the mayor of a small Oregon town ravaged by wildfire, “Built to Burn” helps viewers understand more about wildfires, their causes, consequences and possible mitigation. It’s a complex scenario.

One couple featured had built a home on a cleared lot high in the wooded mountains, living off the electrical grid by using solar power. Nonetheless their home was burned to the ground in a fierce Oregon wildfire. That fire was sparked by power lines. Since the couple owned the land, they planned to rebuild on the same site: new fire regulations now dictate that they remove all trees within 100 feet of a house to help protect from future fire. Husband and wife had, of course, moved to the woods to be able to live among the trees. This conundrum brings up a larger question.

Another scientist and activist wonders if, in today’s climate, whether any dense housing should be allowed in what is called the wildland/urban interface (WUI) since building and the human activity associated with housing invites fire disaster. And yet people want to live in these beautiful environments. What costs are we as a society willing to pay?

New communities typically want to be connected to the power grid. This increases the risk of more fires. This then means a need for more firefighters to rescue people and save houses. So, perhaps houses built in regions at high risk for fires should be required to use fire retardant materials and building practices. Yet, this makes houses significantly more expensive and so few can afford them. Just as in any community, rural wooded areas out West have mobile homes and pre-fab homes. These tend to burn readily in wildfires. So should we ban these most affordable houses? In some locations, insurance companies will no longer insure against fire. Without fire insurance, banks are unwilling to issue mortgages. This reality leads to a situation of significant inequity: under such conditions, only those with significant monetary resources would be able to afford to live near forests.

What than can be done to protect lives and make living near forests more equitable? Solutions are not clear. For further understanding, we must turn to the forests themselves. Along with individual rights, forests too need to be preserved. Forests are not only beautiful places to live but are one of our greatest natural resources and the source of much of our planet’s oxygen.

For tens of thousands of years, humans have lived in and near forests. Why is today different? Population pressures and power lines, as already noted, have changed the equation. In addition, for the last hundred years or so, our country has followed a national policy of fire suppression. At the individual level, fire suppression is common sense: we must tend our campfires and pay attention to any sparking activity we’re responsible for in the wilderness. Smokey the Bear was right — only you can prevent fires [that you might start].

However, at the nation policy level, fire suppression may have been a grave mistake. By extinguishing nearly all fires started by lightning and by not doing prescribed burns (as forest and prairie tribes of Native Americans have traditionally done), our forests have become clogged with underbrush and so have become far more flammable. All that understory becomes prime kindling; all the sapling trees (that would have been taken out by natural fires) become “straws drawing the water table down” as one scientist put it. This puts extra stress on each individual tree making them more vulnerable to fire.

Add to that, today’s warming temperatures and we get a perfect recipe (or a perfect storm) for massive wildfires. As one scientist who has spent decades studying wildfires and climate notes: in the last couple hundred years as we’ve taken ancient carbon from the earth (coal, oil and gas) to run our industries and vehicles, we’ve speeded up the natural carbon cycle by tens of thousands of years. This has made our industrial age — by definition part of a geological ice age — into a fire age.

As narrators in the film pointed out, the easy solutions for reducing fires have already been enacted. Now we must tackle tougher problems. For starters, we need to learn more about Native American fire management techniques. Out West several tribes are now partnering with fire departments, the US Forest Service, and volunteer groups for learning and teaching about such techniques. All the western forests still are home to scores of different tribal peoples whose wisdom should be drawn upon.

Please join us for the next Green Issues film viewing and discussion of “Nausicaa: Staging the Ocean’s Biodiversity,” on July 26 in Hays Hall, Room 104 on the Wabash College campus. For this film we move from fire to water, the water of the deep oceans. Nausicaa is the largest public aquarium in Europe, located in northern France, and is a UNESCO Center of Excellence. It contains a 2.6 million-gallon tank that recreates nature, including day/night and seasonal cycles. The aquarium contains 1600 separate species and 60,000 individual animals. Nausicaa is helping to rebuild endangered species’ populations.

Green Issues films are free and open to the public. They all begin at 7 p.m. Parking can be found in the Center Hall lot reached through the gateway main entrance to Wabash College on Grant Street. Hays Hall is on the north side of this parking lot. We hope you will join us.