Monday, July 8, 2013

Who should pay for fire control at the WUI?

That's "wildland-urban interface," and the acronym is pronounced woo-ee.  I had never heard the term until I read Andrew Revkin's post several days ago:  "19 Firefighters Fall on the 'Wildland-Urban Interface'."  Revkin was, of course, referring to the devastating loss last Sunday of 19 firefighters in the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona.  Those lost, apparently due to a sudden shift in winds, were 19 of 20 Granite Mountain Hot Shots, an elite firefighting crew based in nearby Prescott.  Read more here and here.  That tragic loss has once again brought attention to the phenomenon of folks building homes in what might have been thought of as rural places (and I'll come back to that definition issue below), but  which are now apparently called WUI because they abut or are even embedded in wildlands--typically forest.  Revkin's post starts with a focus on the costs--monetary and human:
There’s an enormous financial cost attending the expansion of America’s “wildland-urban interface” — the term for areas where communities have sprouted in forested areas — in parts of the country prone to wildfires.
Then, Felicity Barringer filed this report on Western home-building phenomenon for the New York Times on Friday.  Her headline says it all--or at least a great deal:  "Homes Keep Rising in West Despite Growing Wildfire Threat."  Here's part of her lede:
Every summer, smoke fills the big skies yet people continue to build in the places that burn most. More people live in these areas, and many balk at controls on how and where to build. 
* * * 
Just as many Easterners resist stepping back from their increasingly flooded coast, Westerners build where they want to build.

Barringer quotes Don Elliott, a senior consultant at Clarion Associates, a land-use consulting firm.
There’s a self-selection factor in there — people who don’t want the government to do things tend to move to places where the government isn’t around to do things.  
Barringer also quantifies the phenomenon, referencing a report released last fall by CoreLogic, a business analytics company, which estimated that 740,000 homes in 13 Western states were at high or very high risk of burning up. The total value of those homes is $136 billion, which equates to nearly $1.9 million per home.  Researchers in Wisconsin and Oregon found that, as of 2010, 43.7 million homes house 98.5 million people at the wildland-urban interface.  That all represents development of an estimated 16% of the WUI, according to sources Barringer cites.  I have to admit that I can't imagine how you calculate that.  That is, the "surface" of that interface is presumably not only constantly shifting, but also expanding and contracting with new construction.  

Barringer next uses Ravalli County, Montana, population 40,617, to illustrate the home-building phenomenon.  Ravalli County, sometimes referred to as the Bitterroot Valley, is contiguous to and south of Missoula County.  In spite of devastating fires that destroyed 70 homes in the Valley in 2000, home building there has accelerated.  Yet the county has consistently chosen not to regulate it, even though more than three-quarters of the county's 19,000 homes are build where fires are likely, and the same percentage of the county's residents live "in the WUI."  (Note an earlier post featuring Ravalli County here, and what the county was considering regulating:  birth control access!)

This brings me back to my earlier query about the use of the term "urban" in "wildland-urban interface."  How can Ravalli County have so much WUI when there is arguably noting in the county that is urban?  Even the county seat, Hamilton, has a population of just about 4,500. 

In addition, Ravalli County's politics certainly fit rural stereotypes.  Barringer reports that Ravalli County voters "decisively rejected a proposal to initiate local zoning," and the ethos seems to be a libertarian one, reflecting "the fervent belief that government should stay out of people's lives."  Consistent with that belief, the Board of Commissioners has "refused to adopt new maps of this interface, in the face of objections from homeowners and real estate agents that it would depress property values, increase insurance rates and lead to regulation."  County commissioner Greg Chilcott stated:
Regulatory intrusion is a concern. We have somewhat adopted the philosophy, in my mind, that informing citizens of the risk of their choices as to where they build their homes is what our job is — rather than regulating them out of their homes or away from their lands.
Chilcott noted that many folks moving to Ravalli County from urban areas don't fully appreciate what they were getting into.
Their romantic vision of the house or cabin in the woods was great — especially when they drive up the gravel road in April and May.  Then rolls in July and August when the gravel road turns to dust and the smoke and flames are threatening their dream home. They didn’t understand the seasons in the Rocky Mountain Northwest.
(Here's a post with a similar theme).  Some accept the risks, Chilcott said, but that others “will demand to be made whole by someone else,” often the federal government, whose forest management practices they may blame when fire threatens or destroys homes.  

Finally, Barringer's very balanced story also incorporates the views of the insurance industry, as well as Bitterroot Valley homeowners.  

All of this reminds me of California's controversial rural fire tax/fee, which was the subject of this post and which raises similar issues about who's responsible for these costs associated with rural living.  Meanwhile, I noted when I was in Canada a few days ago that the The Vancouver Sun newspaper costs more in "in outlying areas" than in other places--the default presumably being metropolitan.  Specifically, the cost is "$1.43 plus GST" except that it is apparently higher in some places, "$2.14 minimum in outlying areas."  This struck me as unfair.  Why shouldn't the cost of the newspaper remain constant wherever it is bought--at least within British Columbia?  Why put the added cost of transport and delivery of the paper onto rural residents?  And that, I guess is related to the question about who should pay for fire damage in rural areas?  Should that burden be on rural dwellers, or should it be shared?  Does federal money that responds to natural disasters across the county, rural or urban, provide the appropriate model?  I note that Barringer does start her story by analogizing the West's home-building practices to those of the Easterners, drawn ever closer to a coast where water levels are rising and storms are intensifying.    

P.S.  This appeared after I wrote this post, and I offer it here because it highlights the fact that the high-risk home building/keeping phenomenon is not just rural and not just the West.

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