Cherished Western dreams go up in smoke

Daniel B. Wheeler dwheeler at
Thu Jul 11 01:23:31 EST 2002

>From The Oregonian, July 10, 2002, p C9 (Commentary)

Cherished Western dreams go up in smoke
People want to have the freedom to live where they want, then to be
rescued when things go wrong

	Fires sweeping through Western forests and grasslands is the oldest
story both in and outside towns. It's a story that began long before
rural subdivisions spread into the forests.
	Before we had the federal government and aggressive fire protection
to blame for our troubles, Western forests burned.
	Combine lots of plants with an arid or semiarid climate, and fire is
an entirely predictable feature of regional life. Yet an unwillingness
to let the recognition of risk restrict individual freedom is an
equally predictable feature of Western life. In the summer of 2002,
these two dynamics have collided: Never before have so many Western
homes been located, voluntarily and even willfully by their builders
and owners, in the line of fire.
	At the core of the Western dream is an individual who insists on
making his own choices and refuses petty regulation. The landscape is
rugged and tough, but the Westerner is more rugged - and tougher. He
settles where he wants to and lives according to his own, self-reliant
	Until, that is, he needs help.
	The Western dream has a golden parachute, a bail-out sequence, an
escape clause and an exit plan. Pioneers intruded into Indian
territory, and when they got themselves into a mess, the Army arrived
to protect them and remove the Indians. Farmers tried to grow crops in
places with low rainfall, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other
agencies built dams and reservoirs that filled in for the rain.
Homeowners wanted to live in houses with stunning views, and counties
built the roads and supplied the services to make these sites
accessible and livable.
	Western risk-taking has often relied on this back-up plan: We get
ourselves in a pinch and the government rushes to get us out of it.
Nature presents challenges that are at once dangerous and appealing,
but human ingenuity and government funding quickly drain the danger
out of these challenges and leave only their appeal.
	Will the fires of 2002 lead to a different outcome? In the mountains
of the intermountain West, Americans seek tranquility, leisure and
escape from the tension and friction of normal life. A landscape in
flames, with fire bearing down on an architect-designed dream house,
rebukes this vision with a force that should challenge our perceptions
and the customs that flow from them.
	But how justified is such a hope? Will a different, wiser West arise
from the ashes of this summer?
	Disaster will not necessarily discourage settling in the forest, in
the same way, for example, hurricanes fail to deter people from living
along the Southeast coast. And a season of fire, unlike a hurricane or
flood, can even give a reassuring sense that now that misfortune has
occurred, its recurrence is unlikely, thus nearly eliminating danger
in the near future.
	Westerners have a deep-rooted hostility to regulation and are
die-hard advocates of the rights of private-property owners. These
attitudes are, apparently, noncombustible; flames pass over them and
leave no mark. Few rural areas have any zoning, and many get along
without building codes, not to mention the sort of regulations that
might reduce fire hazards.
	So Westerners stack up flammable material in remote locations,
embedding these structures in forests that burn episodically. When
Daniel Boone found that his isolation had been breached, and he could
see the smoke rising from his neighbors' chimneys, he felt compelled
to move on. When today's settlers see the smoke rising from their
neighbors' living rooms and bedrooms, what actions will that
frightening sight inspire?
	Can the minds of Boone's ideological descendants expand to embrace
the idea that the constraints of society have something to recommend
them? Can those who celebrate Western freedom bend to the recognition
that regulation and restriction are not always petty and intrusive but
sometimes wise?
	Over the last few decades, many people who have lost homes to
disaster have shown great pluck, reckoned with their losses and
plunged in to rebuild. And, with an admirable generosity, Americans
have responded to other people's calamities with a "barn-raising"
spirit, albeit a barn-raising aided by insurance and federal and state
relief. But should pluck and generosity outweigh foresight and
	Our fellow humans who risk their lives to save us and our property
from fire prove that none of us in an independent Daniel Boone when it
comes to coping with fire. Their stories, sometimes tragic, touch us.
They remind us that even on the edge of wilderness, we are embedded in
society and our actions affect the lives of others.
	The fires of 2002 present an opportunity to re-evaluate our habits
and practices, and to see, through the smoke now clouding many Western
skies, a different, less complacent, more responsible way to inhabit
the West.

Comment by poster: Some profound insight here. There are some people
who feel wood should not be used for fire electrical generating
facilities. However, without fuel reductions over hundreds of
thousands of forested acres, the West will see dramatically larger
fires putting more homes and people at risk.

Why not chip 10-20% of this smaller-diameter biomass and create a
clean-burning energy resource which would also make our forests
healthier? Fast-growing cottonwood or willow would also make good fuel
sources, *provided* that everyone realizes that it is better to burn
this debris in a controlled environment than in an outdoor BBQ known
(previously) as forests.

BTW, 10-20% of biomass would have little effect on forest wildlife,
and if done carefully, should have little effect on endangered
species. Most of this biomass would be small-diameter seedlings which
statistically are those most at risk in forest fires. Reduction of
these seedlings has been shown to increase the growth rate of the
remaining trees.

Keep in mind that some places in the West have upwards of 300,000
stems per acre (such as the Columbia River Gorge). These trees (stems)
will not survive even short-term of 20-years. Before 100 years is
over, over 95% will have died from competition for light, water, and

Daniel B. Wheeler

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