Government Policies Exacerbate Fire Damage

In the second installment of our three-day “Dust-Up,” point-counterpoint articles for the L.A. Times Web site on wildfires and government responses to them, UC Berkeley forestry specialist William Stewart and I write about what government does right in fighting and preventing fires, and what it does wrong. Not surprisingly, we both had much more to say about what it does wrong. Dr. Stewart argues that individuals and communities should take more responsibility for protecting themselves and I point out how bad government policies lead to more severe fire damage.

See Dr. Stewart’s commentary and my response here.

Below is an excerpt of my column.

I agree with you about the incentives of governments to focus more on fighting wildfires after they crop up than addressing the problem through preventive measures. Focusing more on action — or, more accurately, reaction — than prevention is a typical bureaucratic response. The goal seems to be “fighting fires,” when it should be managing government-owned land to prevent or minimize wildfire damage. Unfortunately, fighting fires is politically a sexier aspect of the job — it is more tangible to voters, who can see the news stories of brave firefighters battling the flames to save homes, and politicians can say, “See what we’re doing with your tax dollars!”

Simply put, the . . . government manages its lands poorly. It neglects to build firebreaks and conduct controlled burns before wildfires break out and allows underbrush and other tinder to build up — in some cases, for 40 to 60 years — which makes the fires all the more severe when they hit. For example, a Los Angeles city inspector in Tujunga related how the federal government failed to respond to requests to clean out brush on open lands. The federal agency claimed that it needed to conduct a study and prepare an environmental impact report before taking any action. Environmental policies and regulations that encourage leaving forests, canyons and woodlands in their “natural” state and prevent the clearing of trees and brush that serve as fuel for the fires only make matters worse. This red tape and bureaucratic nonsense leads to more destruction of property and lives.

Another disastrous government policy is the subsidization of fire insurance. In 1968, California created the Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan to be a fire insurance plan of last resort and required all insurers doing business in the state to participate in the insurance pool. This encourages the construction of homes in overly risky, fire-prone areas and is unfair to those who buy insurance in non-fire-prone areas, who must pay higher premiums to subsidize FAIR Plan participants, as well as to taxpayers across the state who have to pay for efforts to save these homes when fires do take place. A true free market in fire insurance would allow insurers to set premiums based on the true value of the fire risk involved and would allow homebuyers to make their purchase decisions accordingly. Some may be priced out by the high cost of insurance in extremely risky areas, and some areas may be uninsurable entirely, but those costs are high for a reason, and they should not be ignored.

Public officials seem to spend an awful lot of time holding news conferences in front of television cameras to offer each other congratulations on the efforts they all are making and too little time providing accurate, real-time information to the public to help them make decisions about how to react to the fires. With resources such as the Internet, satellite pictures and other technology at its disposal, government should be able to provide residents with up-to-date information about exactly where the fire is, and where it is headed at the moment, to help them make better preparations to flee or defend their homes. Yet communication is still lacking, and there always seems to be problems with government emergency notification systems. For example, “The county’s new mass emergency notification system failed to inform residents about the status of the fire or evacuation orders,” L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich wrote in a resolution. “It was reported to my office that an erroneous evacuation order was announced by the mass emergency notification broadcast system to the community of La Crescenta.”

On a related note, as you allude to in your discussion of Australia’s approach to wildfires, government should dispose of mandatory evacuation orders. This is particularly important in more suburban areas where the threat is not so much a raging inferno running through the neighborhood as it is falling embers, which can be combated fairly easily to keep homes from going up in flames. Indeed, many homeowners that defied evacuation orders in recent fires were able to save their homes — and even neighbors’ homes — without suffering harm or necessitating the diversion of firefighting resources to rescue them. In any case, America was founded on the principle that one has the rights to defend his life, liberty and property, and these rights should not be infringed.

In tomorrow’s third and final exchange, we will be debating whether the government should do more to discourage building in wildfire-prone areas, or if there are better means of protecting homes in such areas.