Development and wildfires

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue May 30 11:30:56 MDT 2000

New York Times, May 30, 2000

Population Shift in the West Raises Wildfire Concerns


An Increase in Development Adds to the Risk Created by Overgrown Forests

WASHINGTON, May 26 -- The wildfire that swept through Los Alamos, N.M.,
this month is setting off alarms across the mountain West, where more and
more Americans have chosen to live on the forest's edge.

Experts say that housing shift has multiplied the danger that fires could
kindle similar disasters elsewhere. And the shift is behind an urgent new
Congressional quest for millions of dollars in emergency money to try to
ease the risk.

The blaze in Los Alamos, which consumed hundreds of homes, was a
pre-emptive fire gone awry. But in communities like Ashland, Ore., and
Missoula, Mont., whose populations have swelled with former city dwellers,
the fire has served fresh notice that residents sit astride a volatile mix.

"It's not a matter of if the fire occurs, it's a matter of when," said Paul
Summerfelt, a top Fire Department official in Flagstaff, Ariz., which is
surrounded by the world's largest forest of Ponderosa pines and where half
of the 60,000 residents are said to face a severe wildfire risk.

Across the country, the damage caused by wildfire to homes and property
increased sixfold from the 1980's to the 1990's, to a total of $3.2 billion
over the last 10 years, federal officials say. In an average year over the
past decade, 1,200 homes burned, more than double the number over the
previous decade.

Already this year, more than 40,000 wildfires have consumed more than a
million acres, more than in any similar period since 1996.

With the lesson of Los Alamos in mind, Congress and the Clinton
administration are working on a plan that would focus an urgent new round
of fire-prevention efforts this summer in the danger zones where
populations and wild land meet.

"As people get their homes closer and closer to nature, they become more
and more at risk," said Kenneth O. Burris Jr., chief operating officer of
the United States Fire Administration, which is based in Emmitsburg, Md.

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Louis Proyect

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