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Opinion: Wildfire threat needs local attention

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Opinion: Wildfire threat needs local attention
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In the wake of the deaths of 19 elite Granite Mountain Hotshots in Arizona, firefighters aren’t the only people who should be rethinking their approaches to wildland fires.

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Policy makers and voters should be, too. That’s because wildfires are increasing worldwide, in part for reasons that are influenced by demography and social change.

Those factors have “policy” written all over them. And North Dakotans and Minnesotans, among others, should take note.

Michael Kodas’ book on the subject, “Megafire: An examination of the new world faced by firefighters,” will be released in 2014. Kodas was interviewed by National Public Radio over the weekend, and he made the case.

“Arizona is a virtual case study in the three overarching themes that are driving the global increase in wildfire,” Kodas told NPR.

“Poor forest management — in Arizona’s case, putting out way too many natural fires, resulting in a huge buildup of fuel in the forest. Climate — a recent report shows Arizona warming and drying faster than any other U.S. state. And reckless development — a big migration of population to Arizona has led to rapid expansion of what firefighters call the ‘wildland and urban interface.’”

That interface “is basically where homes and development abut flammable, wild landscapes. In the western United States, it has expanded rapidly in recent years as mountain living has become more popular.

“Last year, with I-News, a Colorado investigative news operation, I worked on a story where we overlaid census data with the state’s ‘red zone’ map, which identifies the most flammable forests in the states. That analysis showed more than 100,000 people moving into the most dangerous forests in the state between 2000 and 2010.

“In Colorado today, one in five people live in a home that’s at risk of burning in a wildfire.”

And as Kodas notes, this trend not only “adds fuel to the fire” in terms of providing more combustibles — homes, cars, propane tanks — for fires to burn, but also adds the fire itself via an “exponential increase in sparks that can start fires.”

So, are development bans in the “wildland and urban interface” the answer?

Almost certainly not. Americans live in earthquake zones, tornado zones and flood zones. They’re probably going to live in wildfire zones, too.

But governments in earthquake-, flood- and tornado-prone areas have tailored their zoning rules and building codes for those hazards. The wildfire threat needs to be added to the list, and in parts of North Dakota and Minnesota as well as across the mountain West. — Tom Dennis for the Grand Forks Herald

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