From the June 30, 2002 edition of . . .
The fire next time: Careless land-use policies seed new disasters

June 30, 2002 12:00:00

The warnings are getting louder. We just don't want to hear.

Rather than being sobered or frightened by the Rim wildfires, Arizona politicians used the disaster to whip up mob hysteria against environmentalists. Given the relative weakness of a green consciousness here, I'm tempted to say there are about three environmentalists in all of Arizona, and they no doubt are part-time developers or contractors.

Sobered or frightened politicians would be calling for a moratorium on building in the forests. 

Serious people would wonder if these fires are only a glimpse of much worse disasters to come if development continues to creep into places where it doesn't belong, where nature's relentless logic eventually trumps human designs.

Wildfires are staples of Western lore. Native tribes lived with fire, making use of its benefits as well as avoiding its dangers. Many Old West towns recall heroic stands made against prairie blazes and forest fires.

But the rising population of the West and the technology to build large numbers of houses in the forests are new, unpredictable elements. The billions of dollars required for wildfire protection is only the first consequence.

Gila County's population grew 27 percent in the 1990s, while Navajo County recorded growth of 26 percent. Much of this took place in the Rim Country, with its cooler weather and spectacular scenery.

Housing is larger than population because of demand for summer homes. In fire-devastated Heber and Overgaard, for example, population grew from 1,582 in 1990 to more than 2,700 in the most recent census. Dwellings increased from 2,491 to 3,178.

It's an issue throughout the West. Colorado officials estimate that 10 times as many houses sit in high-risk fire zones as did 25 years ago.

One result of the suburbanization of the Western forest is to complicate the argument over logging. Newcomers want neither loggers, certainly not with massive "harvesting," nor controlled burns. But fire suppression only postpones, and worsens, the inevitable burning.

Fire is part of the forest. It doesn't care how many lots were sold by a real estate entrepreneur. It doesn't respect how tenderfoots, lured by subsidized roads, utilities, water and firefighters, want to act as if the wilderness is an extension of a Super Wal-Mart.

Another sobering fact: Many fire zones of rural Arizona lack meaningful building codes or land-use planning. High country wildcat subdivisions make the worst excesses of the Valley look like Paris by comparison.

And yet, this latest conflagration will probably not dampen the land rush one bit. Insurance settlements will likely stoke it. Any flicker of doubt, that we haven't yet learned how to live in large numbers in this wilderness, will be stomped out. Any memory of wise stewardship will be lost to the lure of quick profit.

Extreme development is accompanied by an extreme doctrine of property rights: You can't tell me what to do with my land!

Maybe so. But we've been warned.

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