Wildfires, and the threats they pose to people and property, are a fact of life in Wyoming. Every summer fires of various sizes ignite across the state. Across western states, fires have increased significantly over the last 30 years. But University of Colorado Denver professor Gregory Simon argues in a recent book that we’ve been thinking about such fires all wrong.
By allowing development in areas where fires are known to regularly occur, it is inevitable that damage will occur, Simon argues. In “Flame and Fortune in the American West,” the author says that the way we often discuss dangerous wildfires -- as unstoppable natural events, rather than the result of building homes and businesses in unwise places -- contributes to this view and he proposes a new model of viewing the interaction between fires and development. Simon also takes issue with how climate change has been used to explain the increase in fires, arguing that global warming is often used as an easy explanation to cover up poor decision making by planners and developers.
As a teenager, your family home in California came very close to being engulfed by the largest urban wildfire ever. How did that experience impact your academic work on this subject?
I probably would not have researched this topic, or even written this book, without having had this personal experience. It was pretty traumatic to be here alone and witness that and have the ripple effect of other people who did lose their homes and their grief over a number of decades. Those memories lasted for a long time.
Your book tackles the shortcomings for the “Wildland Urban Interface,” which is the main system that developers and planners use to deal with wildfire risk. You argue that it focuses too much on what is there -- residential development encroaching on nature -- and too little on how it got there. Instead you propose the “affluence-vulnerability interface.” What does the AFI do differently?
The WUI still remains important and it does make sense of -- in a pretty clear, binary way -- a really complicated, messy overlap between urban and rural. And thinking about an area that way, being vulnerable or prone to wildfire, is helpful. But the WUI doesn’t get at some of the more structural, systemic forces that are driving the transformation of exurban and rural areas into suburban residential developments and the various factors that make these landscapes very lucrative landscapes for builders. So the affluence-vulnerability interface is meant to prompt people who are interested in managing these areas to look backwards and think about some of the factors that converted these landscapes into what we see today and using those lessons to prevent that from happening again and again.
Given the strong private property protections we have in the United States and how much money can be made by developing fire-prone areas, can the risky behavior you criticize be stopped without significantly reforming our economic system?
Look, if we could have things totally differently -- unconstrained by the inertia that exists in the political-economic system -- then absolutely the best way to resolve this would be to amend how profit and value is applied to suburban and exurban landscape. That would be ideal. But we live in a capitalist economic system that is not going anywhere anytime soon. So in the book I propose ways in which we can slow down this process of converting landscape, and adding risk to the landscapes and extracting profits from landscapes, by doing things like taking land out of availability through conservation easements or making development more costly, whether that means reducing fire protection services or reducing home ownership incentives. I offer approaches that try to soften the blow, as opposed to saying we’ve just got to do away with capitalism -- because that just doesn't sound very realistic to me. But the problem really boils down to economics and cultural preference.
Is your book anti-development?
The problem of high-risk wildfires and all of the cost and loss of life that occurs as a result of them is not because of the fire itself. It's because of the presence of these large, residential developments being placed in harm's way. We wouldn't be concerned if the fires were just running through boreal forest, for example. The placement of massive amounts of human assets, like large residential developments, is what makes fire a problem with fire -- fire is actually a natural thing and good for the environment. But stopping these developments altogether is nearly impossible. At this point we need to be mitigating these risks and slowing down development if not eliminating it. There's so much room for more development that something needs to be done.
Are you simply giving people the tools to make personal decisions or implement changes on a local level or are you calling for wholesale re-evaluation of urban development in the West?
My book isn't meant to prescribe steps. I'm not suggesting that if you check boxes one through 10 you’ll solve the problem. I’m showing a suite of options that might be useful for cities and planners and I’d like them to trickle down to residents as well. This book is meant to start the conversation. One objective of the book is to say, look, you can change land use planning in this way or that way, you can change the rules, you can change development to reduce fire risks and costs. But the other part of the book is concerned with how we talk about fire. I argue that when we suggest the problem is caused mainly by climate change and environmental factors we are actually exonerating -- unfairly -- the role of humans and city developers in creating these risks in the first place. I don't want to hear another report on the news that says this is just an inevitable and natural result of a changing climate. We keep spreading cities farther and farther out and I think that needs to be part of the discourse. Fires disasters aren't natural, they’re very social.
How is climate change used to wrongly exonerate human behavior when it comes to wildfires?
Climate change is abstract. It's easy to deny it because it is abstract. On the other hand, it's also easy to place blame on climate change for fire is because it is abstract: “It’s just a broad climate issue, it’s global warming.” Placing blame on urban development hits closer to home and a lot of people are uncomfortable with that because then they’re pointing the finger at themselves. Especially for people in the construction and development and planning side of things, and also the at-risk homeowners, that would place blame on themselves as opposed to blaming the coal industry and the fossil fuel industry somewhere else in the country -- or even natural weather cycles. While climate change is certainly important, it's not typically what turns a normal fire into a wildfire disaster.
A second challenge is that it’s very difficult for a lot of people to critique capitalism, and that makes it difficult for people to critique the social cause of wildfires: the rapid development of suburban landscapes. For a lot of people that's what makes America, America: “What makes us special as a country is we’re not encumbered by government.” To critique this and say the footloose, fancy free, laissez-faire approach to sprawling metropolitan areas is really the driving force behind these growing fire disasters makes people feel really uncomfortable.
Wyoming has the lowest percentage of developed WUI out of all western states. It seems like this may protect us from some of the wildfire danger you describe in your book. Should we be comforted by our relative lack of sprawl, or should we be worried about what may come?
The answer lies in the development regulations and planning rules that exist for major populated areas in the state. What do they say in terms of what's allowable development? That basically portends what the future holds. If it's simply been a lack of demand, but then demand comes, you're likely going to have runaway development and that's probably cause for alarm. But if there has been demand and the citizens and government of Wyoming have been good about protecting suburban areas from development, then I think you can feel pretty safe and comforted by those statistics.
Interview has been edited and condensed.