NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Cutting Wildfire Risks

November 17, 2003

Recent fires that struck Ruidoso, N.M., which is surrounded by the Lincoln National Forest, have brought into focus the risks of living in the woods. In response, Ruidoso has enacted measures that make the mountain vacation retreat a leader in addressing the wildfire threat.

The heart of its program: a mandate that homeowners within a 13,000-acre area thin trees and brush from around their properties. Ruidoso's forceful approach is likely to become more common across the West, where three of the past four fire seasons have been unusually destructive. This fall's wildfires in California, for instance, killed 22 people, destroyed more than 3,500 homes and charred 740,000 acres.

Homeowners and builders are increasingly being told -- not asked -- to protect themselves:

  • Towns and counties throughout the interior West are adopting tougher regulations that require new homes to have ''defensible space'' -- firebreaks with few trees and plants -- that help protect houses from approaching flames.
  • Building codes are being changed to require more fire-resistant construction materials when new homes are built or old ones refurbished.
  • Insurers are strongly encouraging their policyholders to make their homes safer from wildfires -- or risk losing their coverage.

Ruidoso is attacking the danger on many fronts. With so many seasonal residents, the village has focused on public education and warning systems. Emergency evacuation routes are now well marked with roadside signs. A "reverse 911" telephone warning system can automatically notify hundreds of residents within a few minutes that they must evacuate.

Source: Tom Kenworthy, "No choice but to cut wildfire risk N.M. town enforces strict rules on hazards," USA Today, November 17, 2003.


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