Fires, and the dividing line between urban and wild

Most people, when they want to live in the woods, have this deep-seated fantasy of a cabin somewhere. There’s a chimney with smoke drifting out, and a candle glowing in the window. Many of us in the west have this fantasy, it might go back to the deep-seated cultural idea of having shelter and prospect. You have this beautiful shelter in the trees, and then a beautiful prospect of the mountains, or a lake, or whatever is considered the “view” of the area where you live.  The problem is when everybody wants to live in the woods. People start carving out spaces in the forest to build houses, and then, what are we supposed to do if there’s a fire?

detached two-storey log cabin, with an attic, a beautiful house painted brown, surrounded by a winter coniferous forest, covered in snowdrifts.

The term Urban Wildland Interface describes the mosaic of  neighborhoods away from towns, out in the woods or in grassland. Residents typically don’t live and work there, they commute into towns to work, then commute back to their fantasy cabin in the woods. 

Fire mitigation is the process of making houses in the woods easier to defend from wildfires. It protects property, and incidentally the lives of firefighters. To mitigate, the first thing to do is cut down any trees that are close to the house and make sure that there aren’t any live branches hanging over the house, or any dead branches or leaves on the ground. No flammable mulch is allowed around the trees, just rocks. Grass is encouraged.  When I imagine this, it doesn’t look much different from the suburban lawn that people move to the woods to escape. 

Here’s the thing, I don’t actually want to live in the woods. I live within walking distance of 7-11, and that works for me. But for people who decide they want to live in the mountains, living in the woods is part of it and mitigating fire damage by chopping down any trees that are nearby is not something they want to do.  So the question should they be paid to rebuild, should insurance cover that, should disaster funds be paid to rebuild when it burns down? Should firefighters risk their lives to protect when the side of the mountain goes up in smoke?

As I was researching my new book Goldburgh Variations, the third book in the Ms. O. Mystery series,  I found the fascinating website Ecowest. The writers have created amazing ways to visualize the research about fire, water, snowfall, temperatures and more on their website. We can be buried in information, sometimes, and feel helpless. The creators of Ecowest have helped me see some of the data and understand how things are connected. 

We have to balance the needs of society with personal freedom, and the life I want to live versus community responsibility. My house is not mitigated- I have branches hanging over my roof, flammable mulch, piles of brush. If my house catches on fire, and the mulch and dry branches in my yard spread the fire to my neighbors’ houses, my personal landscaping choices affect my neighbors lives and property. 

But wait, you say, you live within walking distance of a convenience store, why would you be worried about wildfires? Because I saw the damage done by the Marshall fire.

While driving to the mountains on New Year’s eve,  we passed by an enormous fire in Boulder County. It was visible from the interstate. and there were neighborhoods up in flames, hardware stores, strip malls, restaurants, all on fire. This was a place that I don’t think of as urban wildland interface. It isn’t the woods, it just seems suburban to me. After a very dry autumn, dry grass and brush caught fire in an open space near a suburban community. High winds then spread the fire to neighborhoods. The biggest difference in the new years fire, is that these neighborhoods were not in the forest, they were built in an area that was prairie for thousands of years, and farmland for a hundred years or so, then neighborhoods. There was incredible wind that day, rushing out of the mouth of a canyon, there was a spark, and after a very dry autumn, the whole neighborhood went up in smoke.

When we build neighborhoods out in the wilds, we are changing the habitat for plants and animals, and we can’t help that. People need to live somewhere, right?  Our personal freedom overlaps with other people’s personal freedom. Not just with fire, but with water and economics as well. Fire gets attention, but all of the details matter. We have a fantasy of our cabin in the woods, or a detached house with a bit of land, but is it the best thing for our communities? I am creating fictional problems for my characters to solve in Goldburgh Variations, so maybe we can practice solving them in real life. That’s what fiction is for, right?

What are your thoughts? Are you a cabin in the woods type, or do you want to walk to a convenience store? Let me know in the comments, along with any other thoughts you have about fires and other natural disasters.

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