All wildfires are not alike, but the U.S. is fighting them that way

By Stephen Pyne

Every major fire rekindles another round of commentaries about “America’s wildfire problem.” But the fact is that our nation does not have a fire problem. It has many fire problems, and they require different strategies. Some problem fires have technical solutions, some demand cultural calls. All are political.

So far, the fire has produced a handful of big fires in California, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado; conflagrations in Oklahoma and Kansas; and a fire bust in Alaska, along with garden-variety wildfires from Florida to Oregon. Some of those fires are in rural areas, some are in wildlands, and a few are in exurbs.

Even in a time of new normals, this looks pretty typical. Fire starts are a little below the 10-year running average, and the amount of burned area is running above that average. But no one can predict what may happen in the coming months. California thought it had dodged a bullet in 2017, until a swarm of wildfires in late fall blasted through Napa and Sonoma counties, followed by the Big One – the Thomas fire, California’s largest on record, in Ventura and Santa Barbara.

Every major fire rekindles another round of commentaries about “America’s wildfire problem.” But the fact is that our nation does not have a fire problem. It has many fire problems, and they require different strategies. Some problem fires have technical solutions, some demand cultural calls. All are political.

Here’s one idea: It’s time to rethink firefighting in the geekily labeled wildland-urban interface, or WUI – zones where human intermingles with forests, grasslands and other feral vegetation.

It’s a dumb name because the boundary is not really an interface but an intermix, in which houses and natural vegetation abut and scramble in an ecological omelet. It’s a dumb problem because we know how to keep houses from burning – but we have had to relearn that in WUI zones, hardening houses and landscaping their communities is the best defense. This is a local task, not a federal one, though the federal agencies have a supporting role and can, and do, help build local capacity.



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