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Fires force people to reevaluate forest living

Fire threatened homes near Missoula, Montana, in 2007. Photo: Michael Gallacher/The Missoulian

The wildfires in California last fall killed 10 people, forced the evacuation of nearly a million others, destroyed approximately 2,000 homes and more than 400,00 acres. And, experts are predicting even more such “mega-fires.”

Besides the devastating economic impact, such fires bring with them the ability to change people. There’s the personal trauma of losing loved ones, homes and possessions. The heavy decision of whether to rebuild at the site of disaster or move on. And there’s the collective reaction, ranging from acknowledging the risk and taking appropriate precautions to ignoring the risks altogether.

Tom Barrett, a clinical associate professor in the International Disaster Psychology Program at DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology, says it’s normal for people to have problems adjusting after a disaster. Sadness, anxiety and difficulty sleeping are common reactions.

“We do know that most people are able to recover. Generally, people have problems for a month or two. But it’s also dependent on how severe the disaster was,” Barrett says.

He says that people should get support from family and friends, and if necessary, seek professional assistance. Whether they move away or return to the disaster site is a personal choice. Some people find it better to get some space between them and where the disaster occurred, he says, but others prefer to rebuild where they’ve got family or a strong social network.

Kristine Davenport lives in Montana, where last summer the Black Mountain fire raged near her home.

“When I grew up in Montana years ago we didn’t have this hot weather,” Davenport says. “It reached 107 here, which broke a record. That’s the reason we have all the fires. Everything dries out and everything’s ready to be burned.”

The fires in California came during Los Angeles’ worst drought in recorded history, just when the Santa Ana winds were exceptionally fierce. Those conditions fueled the flames.

Since 1982, more than 8.6 million homes in the West have been built near national forests. In California, more than half of new homes built since 1950 have been built in severe fire zones. But it isn’t just a western problem. Eastern forests are drying out, too, leaving two out of every five homes on the front lines. In the last four years, acreage burned has been 211 percent higher than the 48-year average.

Jim Paxon is a former firefighter who has battled some 200 blazes. He was a U.S. Forest Service ranger for 22 years, and now he consults with developers and communities on being “fire safe.”

“Fire is Mother Nature’s broom to sweep the forest floor clean,” Paxon says. “The forest is her home. How would you like it if you couldn’t sweep your home?”

Paxon says before widespread settlement of the West, fires were of short duration, with four- to six-inch flames, burning mostly grasslands at 800-900 degrees. Compare that with today’s fires: 300-foot flames burning at 2,000-2,200 degrees. Those mega-fires, he says, are like an atomic explosion.

“They’re sterilizing the soil, literally cooking the soil. What comes back are plants that are less desirable, like juniper, which drink a lot more water than a pine tree does.”

Paxon says there’s a fix, but it isn’t quick, easy or cheap.

He says of 200 million acres of national forest, 150 million acres need to be thinned from approximately 1,000 trees per acre to about 20-40 per acre. He estimates that costing $1.5 billion and taking about 50 years.

Paxon attributes the increase in fires to a cyclical drought and predicts more and bigger fires until the current drought ends. Meanwhile, he is telling communities: “Clean up the land like Mother Nature would because you probably won’t like the way she does it.”

Jeff Thomas (BA psychology ’85), a clinical associate professor of fire science at Arizona State University, agrees with Paxon that the problem began when forest management changed about a century ago. Fires were put out quicker, eliminating the natural cycle that thinned the forests and reduced the ground litter that provides fuel for fires.

“Now our forests are powder kegs,” Thomas says.

Those fuels burn hotter and rise up to the top of the trees, then jump from treetop to treetop.

“Trees give people a sense of privacy and solitude,” Thomas says, but the same trees provide fuel for wildfires. He says people need to change how they view and live in forests.

Thomas says communities can be more stringent with fire codes and require new construction to follow “firewise” building codes. Those codes require homeowners to keep trees at least 30 feet from buildings, remove ground litter, keep 10 feet between the tips of branches of neighboring trees and prune so the lowest tree branches are three times the height of the tallest shrub.

In California, a handful of communities subscribe to the nation’s toughest residential fire codes. Built on a model developed in Australia, homes are built and landscaped using materials and techniques designed to make them fire-resistant. No homes were lost in those communities during the recent fires.

“People who follow a fire-wise plan create a defensible space around their home,” Thomas says. “It works.”

Bentley King contributed to this article.

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