When Science Isn’t Enough

Tom Veblen has a problem. Through his work as a University of Colorado-Boulder professor of geography and leading researcher on wildfire, he knows the best way to lessen the death and destruction from worsening wildfire seasons: don’t let people build homes in fire-prone environments. Even though he has the research to back him up, not everyone is listening.

While standing on Bald Mountain, which overlooks the land scorched by 2010’s Fourmile Canyon Fire, Professor Veblen said we “will have to see a lot more loss before we adopt a rational approach.” We are not there yet. As we continue to ignore the science, we need to openly acknowledge it and make accommodations for the consequences.

Professor Veblen overlooking the area where Fourmile Canyon fire burned

Professor Veblen on Bald Mountain. On the hill left of him, a house is under construction. (credit: Michael Weiss)

A new report by the U.S. Forest Service proves we are denying the science on wildfires. Instead of people avoiding fire-prone environments, the wildland-urban interface (WUI) is expanding. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of homes in the WUI grew by 5 percent. That brought the total number to one-third of all homes in the continental U.S., even though the WUI only comprises 10 percent of the land.

The combination of this expansion and hotter and drier conditions as a result of climate change is having devastating effects. In 2010, the Fourmile Canyon Fire destroyed 167 homes and burned 6,181 acres. It was Colorado’s most destructive and expensive wildfire at the time. Unfortunately, the record didn’t last long. The 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire consumed 346 homes over 18,297 acres. That was topped the next year by the Black Forest Fire, which destroyed 486 homes over 14,280 acres. The five most destructive fires in Colorado’s history have occurred since 2002.

Firefighters prepare to battle the 2013 Black Forest Fire.

Firefighters prepare to battle the 2013 Black Forest Fire. (credit: Capt Darin Overstreet)

For years, the Forest Service and land-use managers based their policies on the Southwest Ponderosa Pine model. It was the result of research in California, Arizona and New Mexico from the 1950s to 1970s. The model emphasized preventing fires by reducing the fuel available. Although based on solid science, it was mistakenly applied as a one-size-fits-all solution. This led to a focus on the buildup of fuel in forests as a result of fire suppression efforts since 1920 as the main culprit. Research by Professor Veblen and other scientists proved fire suppression measures have not significantly affected the severity of fires. Instead, elevation is the greatest determinant of the severity of a wildfire. Scientists and policymakers now recognize the old model applies in some locations but not others and are adapting their responses appropriately, albeit slowly. This hasn’t stopped people from building, or land-use managers from permitting, homes at higher elevations where a severe fire is a matter of when, not if.

Based on the work of scientists such as Professor Veblen over the past 20-30 years, we know how to minimize the wildfire risk to people and property. Policies ranging from mandating fire-resistant building materials for houses in fire-prone environments to prohibiting building in those same locations go a long way towards saving lives and resources. California has had some success implementing these types of policies, but other Western states, including Colorado, have not been made the tough calls. Some, such as Professor Veblen, even proposed the federal government stop reimbursing states for fighting wildfires. This would force state and local leaders to face financial consequences for the policies they put into place.

Sadly, sometimes science is not enough to drive a policy change and it takes a major disaster to spur action. Hopefully Colorado will not wait until the Black Forest Fire’s record is broken to listen to science and stop playing with fire.

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