On Preventing Wildfires
It has been painful to listen to people who should know better opine about the causes of the terrible fires and loss of life in Paradise, Calif. Too many trees. Too much brush and litter. Too much or not enough logging. Unique weather event. I listened to similar stories after the Oakland hills fire of 1991, Malibu in 1993 and Santa Rosa in 2017, where a high school friend lost her home.
Nobody mentioned the actual cause of the devastation, except insurance executives I know: The houses that burned contained 20 tons apiece of dry lumber, the best fire fuel available. Houses are easily ignited by embers or even radiant heat. Had they been built from inert materials, there would have been little fuel, and many would have survived: Death rates from house fires are far higher in the U.S. than in most European and Asian countries.
When I attended meetings for fire survivors in Malibu in 1994, local fire marshalls suggested “defensible space” in order to survive the next inevitable brush fire. That meant removing vegetation around the house, closing the eaves and avoiding wood decks. This year’s Woosley Fire in Malibu was right on schedule, as they appear every 25 years or so, as natural events.
Even more houses burned this time, as those preventive actions failed. Architects and contractors persuaded fire survivors in 1994 to use wood, since it was too much trouble for them to learn how to use durable materials, as does most of the world. Our houses last an average of 60 years anyway, a fraction of what is expected in Europe and most other parts of the world.
The U.S. uses 26 percent of the earth’s wood products, roughly half of it for lumber. About 30 percent of it comes from Canada, whose logging practices include mile-long clearcuts in old growth habitats. Tree plantations here in the west are failing after three or four “rotations,” and microclimates see site temperatures 10 degrees hotter in some cases, another feedback loop.
In spite of what logic and intuition tell us, using lumber is much worse for our carbon-dioxide emissions than steel or even concrete.
When I went before Congressional committees on this subject in 1998, executives from major homebuilding firms told me that they actually hated the timber industry. They were trapped by the fact that lumber is the cheapest way to build, and consumers didn’t seem to care about quality, durability, or resistance to fire. This, in turn, is enabled by the many subsidies that are granted to the timber industry, including tax write-offs for chemical treatments and seedlings after destroying a forest by clear cutting.
Let’s allow the victims of the latest round of fires to avoid dying in vain and use this knowledge to specify noncombustible materials for housing in the future, at least in fire prone areas. It’s a big task, but lately we seem to have forgotten America’s greatness. Let’s show the world that we’ve still got it.