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July 07, 2004

You Don't Need a Weatherman, II

More thoughts on the same item.

Fires in the dry, inland Northwest are igniting as usual, near Washington’s Lake Chelan, for example. But such fires are commonplace; in fact, they maintain vigorous ecosystems.

Cascadia’s coastal rainforests, especially northern ones, are a different story. They’re not adapted to fire. On our coast, as in tropical rainforests, fire is a sign of something unnatural—most likely, global climate change.

North of Cascadia, in the interior of Alaska, anomalous fires have raged in recent weeks. The Anchorage Daily News blamed climate change for the fact that

The 2004 fire season is shaping up to be one of the most destructive and expensive in years. . . . Fires seem to be moving faster, burning hotter and threatening more people.

Such fires are hard to manage in thinly populated interior Alaska and northern British Columbia. They're much harder to manage in the inland Northwest, where thousands of people have moved beyond the suburbs into woodland homes, creating hazards for themselves and also budget-busting firefighting bills for taxpayers. Now imagine the fire regime of the inland Northwest migrating westward across the Cascades in Washington and Oregon. Imagine it moving westward to the edges of greater Vancouver in British Columbia.

The Puget Sound basin, the Willamette Valley, and BC's lower mainland are the demographic heart of Cascadia. They have not just thousands but hundreds of thousands of people living in large, wood-frame houses on large, forested lots in the foothills. These quintessential Northwest getaways, connected with suburbia by roads and private cars (or trucks), are likely to become far riskier living places in the years ahead as the climate changes.

It’s already happening in Washington, as this article describes. (And statewide, the summer is looking fierier than average, too.)

In 2001, we suggested reforming the way that governments pay for fire fighting (and flood control too), requiring those who choose to live in harm’s way to shoulder the cost. At present, the treasury underwrites some of the costs of development in risky locales (by protecting homeowners from wildfires and bailing them out after floods). These policies facilitate sprawl and waste public money.

On a hopeful note, if fire danger—and the cost of fire insurance—come into play in the forested peripheries of Cascadia’s great cities, it may help to reverse sprawl. Exurban forest dwellers may decide that living inside city limits, away from the fire line, is a good idea after all. So, in a limited and roundabout way, the climate-change effect (rainforest fires) may help to stem a climate-change cause (sprawling, auto-dependent development patterns, where citizens emit their body weight in greenhouse gases each day).

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink


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I read with interest Alan Durning's report on wildland fires in the Northwest interior. I fear his hope that castastrophic fires will reverse first & second home sprawl will be dashed, however--if our local experience is any measure. Last year our mountain area was severely impacted by wildfire that burned 400,000 acres in the county. Locally, 700 homes burned, about one-third the total. While some locals chose to leave, they were more than evenly balanced by an influx of newcomers apparently convinced a)the area will never burn again (hah!), & b)it is still a good real estate investment (apparently true: prices actually increased after the fire). Local jobs are very limited, & many of these newcomers are making round trip commutes of 100 miles or more each day.
Maybe Cascadia region folks & government are more enlightened than crazy, greedy California! I hope so.
Katharine Shapiro

Posted by: Katharine Shapiro | Jul 11, 2004 3:00:31 PM

Thanks for your comment, Katharine.

Where do you live?

Posted by: Alan Durning | Jul 14, 2004 4:22:57 PM