NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 18, 2006

This summer more than 60,000 wildfires have consumed four million acres.  Yet those counties in Colorado and New Mexico afflicted in recent years by the worst wildfires are also among those with the greatest influx of new residents, says Roger G. Kennedy, director of the National Park Service from 1994 to 1997.

This land rush into the tinderbox makes no distinction between safe and unsafe neighborhoods or building materials.  But then, neither does the federal government, which endorses indiscriminate acceptance of fire risk by subsidizing it indiscriminately.

This is madness, says Kennedy:

  • The reinsurance industry knows precisely -- ZIP code by ZIP code, mailbox by mailbox -- where, and how severely, people are at risk in fire-prone states; the industry does not purposefully deny this information to the public, but few know where to find it.
  • Efforts to reduce taxpayer subsidies that urge people into danger should begin with access to the facts; few families would put their lives and possessions in firetraps if fully informed of the risks (most migrants to the fire-prone West are told only that it's been hot and dry -- lately).
  • We need a National Flame Zone Atlas detailing the country's relative exposure to fire; based on that information, subsidies for homebuilding and infrastructure in specific locales should be granted or withheld.

The mere existence of a National Flame Zone Atlas would drive home two truths:

  • That wildfire is a fact of life and that the moral and political imperative before us is not just adapting to wildfire, but reducing the number of people going uninformed into danger.
  • Fire, like flood, teaches political lessons about costly taxpayer subsidies that encourage building in danger zones.

We need to stop encouraging people to build houses where houses don't belong, says Kennedy.

Source: Roger G. Kennedy, "Houses Built to Burn," New York Times, July 18, 2006.

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