Wildfire and Americans

How to Save Lives, Property, and Your Tax Dollars

Roger G. Kennedy

Hill and Wang

Wildfire and Americans
PART ONE
People in Flame Zones
1. THE PLAN OF THE WORK
Los Alamos is a bomb factory set in a firetrap. It was put there by scientists adept at physics and chemistry but not universally wise. They could make nuclear weapons, and they could teach others how to deliver those weapons to their targets. They were not, however, good at everything their country asked of them, or at solving every problem about which some of them felt impelled to offer advice. Few of them, for example, were trained in the biological sciences or the dynamics of wildfire. Nevertheless, on their recommendation, landscapes were shaped and entirely new cities situated at Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington. Wildfire was not a problem addressed by their founding fathers.
Los Alamos lies on the Pajarito Plateau of New Mexico, above the Rio Grande Gorge. Eroded ochre slopes decline to the river on the south and east. To the north and west, "the Lab" backs onto steep forested mountainsides managed by the National Park Service and the United States Forest Service. It seems safe, and so it is, from a political or military threat. Not since the "Pueblo Revolt" of the seventeenth century has there been a military action against a central government in the region, and there was little resistance when the Hispanic villages of New Mexico were conquered by the United States Cavalry in the 1840s, and thereafter formally ceded by treaty. The scientists whofounded Los Alamos did not worry about domestic insurrection anyway; they had other things on their minds--espionage and the range of missiles that might be launched from warships.
However, Los Alamos is not safe. Further consultation with the people of the pueblos, or with the fire managers of Bandelier National Monument or of the Forest Service would have yielded the information that the plateau had been burned by wildfire about every ten years on average since people first came there. The climate is dry. The woods are filled with trees oozing pitch that is a sort of gummy turpentine, awaiting the lightning that strikes the mesa hundreds of times each summer. Still in living memory is the large fire on Forest Service land that burned its way down to Los Alamos Canyon in 1954; the La Mesa Fire of 1977 broke out on Forest Service land amid the slash left by a lumbering operation, and though it spread into Los Alamos, it, too, was treated as a fluke. During the early 1990s, the Dome Fire reduced to charred sticks and cinders more than sixteen thousand acres in the National Forest seven miles from Los Alamos. "Had not the wind shifted on the Dome Fire, it would have entered upper Frijoles and probably Los Alamos. That wind shift saved the town."1
Still, no serious effort was made to reduce the danger of wildfire in Los Alamos. Only a few fuel breaks were built and some trees thinned, until the laboratory administration of the mid-1990s began to step up the work and actually transferred funds to help the Forest Service with the reduction of fire load--fallen limbs, brush, and small, highly inflammable trees. This help was necessary. Congress, while always ready to put up more concrete bunkers, administration buildings, block-long laboratories, mysterious tubes and towers, and mile after mile of metal fencing, showed little interest in providing protection to the people of the laboratory or town against natural hazards the founders of the laboratory had failed to notice. Ribboncutting was more pictorial than brush-cutting. Science stopped at the laboratory door.
Nonetheless, some of the administrators living on the propertydid begin to take action in the 1990s, and because of their late, uncelebrated efforts, it is likely that the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 was less destructive than it might have been. Inside the town, life went on. Park Service and Forest Service employees, knowing the dangers at hand, went house to house to warn the inhabitants of the urgent need to remove the fire load in their yards. By that time, however, those inhabitants were accustomed to a garrisonlike situation in which it seemed reasonable to assume that if there were perils they would have been warned of them by their superiors. Only a few, heeding the warnings that came to them from outsiders, adopted measures that have subsequently become called "fire-wise principles."
Next to the laboratory, after the 1977 fire, the National Park Service had begun cutting out brush and small trees by a series of small, deliberate controlled burns. Much of the Bandelier National Monument was covered by such burns or by the big recurring natural burns. On Sunday, May 7, 2000, one of the last of these controlled or "prescriptive" fires was set. Then came a series of misfortunes, and a hundred-foot wave of scarlet fire rushed toward Los Alamos, disregarding fencing or NO TRESPASSING signs. All through several nights, a ferocious blaze illuminated those proud concrete bunkers, administration buildings, block-long laboratories, tubes, and towers.
By the evening of the tenth, five hundred firefighters were at risk. When the winds were not too powerful, and there was daylight to penetrate the smoke, seven helicopters and five air tankers were in use. By the time the fire burned itself out, eighteen thousand acres had burned, including 235 houses in Los Alamos. Thousands of people had been evacuated.
Those who had located the laboratory and town at Los Alamos had been thinking politically, not environmentally. They were worried about human systems, not natural systems. It was characteristic of a kind of nature-blindness that afflicted national policies at the time, not only in placing defense installations but also in channeling migration and altering urban life across the entire nation. During the Cold War decades, success in developing atomic bombs gave science,even nature-blind science, great prestige. Experts in urban destruction were assumed to be experts in urban safety. Though for a time capable of perceiving only one set of dangers--those likely to come from political enemies--they provided arguments useful to people whose motives were not primarily patriotic but pecuniary. A dispersion-industrial complex exploited arguments to disperse targets in order to secure government financing. This led to the location of many millions of people in places dangerous for other reasons. Much unintended harm was done to the health of American cities and of the American countryside.
The story of urban dispersion in the United States has been told from many perspectives, and in a large literature well worth reading. I do not attempt to do more in these pages than give emphasis to some sets of events that I believe to have been insufficiently apprehended. I do so not for the purpose of finding fault--indeed, I would not have written this book at all if I were not offended by fault-finding as a distraction from correction. It is correction that I seek, encouraged by the conviction that much of what is lamentable in these pages is also remediable. The weakening of the old industrial cities of America was done on purpose. Populations were relocated purposefully into places imperiled by natural forces such as fire. Cities were gutted and their inhabitants displaced by the deliberate use of federal subsidies and governmental planning.
But deliberate actions can often be deliberately reversed. Not always, of course, for there are irreversible consequences. Yet because there was nothing mysterious in the devices used to weaken old ways of life among humans in cities and among other living creatures in remote valleys and watersheds, there need be nothing mysterious in the ways in which desirable and surviving conditions can be strengthened.
Citizens can rise up in a taxpayers' revolt to stop subsidizing a land rush into fire danger. To assist them, some facts must be fished out of some crannies and locked files and pasted onto placards. The most compelling of those facts have to do with how and why the subsidies developed--and how they work today.
I hope to help in that process. It seems to me that I should begin with a candid statement of the direction from which my effort to convince is offered: I was an Eisenhower Republican, precinct chairman, ward chairman, district chairman, winner of a congressional primary election, and loser of the general election (to Eugene McCarthy). I was assistant successively to three cabinet officers in the Eisenhower Administration, and served on presidential commissions or special assistancies for Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Carter, and Bush the First, before being appointed by the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to be the first director of the National Museum of American History, and then by President Clinton to be director of the National Park Service, an office I occupied from 1993 through 1997.
As a reporter for NBC and as the producer or presenter of documentaries based in Washington for PBS, the BBC, and the Discovery Channel, I have had the opportunity to observe how the federal government works. I have written eleven books about American history and many prefaces, and edited the twelve-volume Guide to Historic America for the Smithsonian Institution and also a reissue of a WPA guide. I've been trying to understand government for a long time.
I cannot pretend that this book arose from cool, detached, scholarly inquisitiveness. It didn't. It arose from outrage. In May 2000, I witnessed an orgy of scapegoating and misinformation after the great fire on the Pajarito Plateau burst into flame in what has come to be known as the Cerro Grande Fire, from Bandelier National Monument into Los Alamos National Laboratory. That was three years after I retired as director of the Park Service, but I knew enough about the scientific fire management at Bandelier during the previous decade to respect those who had done the work, and to be disquieted by the rush to pin responsibility on them for the devastation caused by the fire. I was living nearby and watched the fire move across the western horizon. As the press reported that a "blame game" was under way, there was a stench of injustice in the air along with the smoke.
In other settings in military and civilian life, I have had some experiencewith searches for scapegoats that distracted attention from systemic needs. In the aftermath of the Cerro Grande Fire I felt--though did not then have enough of the facts to be certain--that the problem was unlikely to lie where politicians and the press were pointing: "criminal negligence" on the part of Park Service employees. As I learned more, it became clear that the scapegoats were being lied about. They were being singled out because important people did not want the grievous flaws in the nation's system of settlement and interaction with natural systems fully disclosed. There were then, and are still today, powerful persons who are not enthusiastic about such discussion, despite the increasing dangers of the fire-prone landscape of the nation and the increasing number of people exposed to those dangers.
Much of the impulse to satisfy a public outcry with hasty dismissals has been orchestrated to avoid discussion of the root causes of these disasters. This book was written to stimulate that discussion and to bring into it recognition of the profitable businesses that thrive on a culture that subsidizes settlement beyond safe limits, putting settlers and those who must rescue them at risk. I have written it because I hope to have some part in rousing a taxpayer revolt that is also a moral revolt against circumstances imperiling people and, also, our fragile habitat, this precious earth.
TELLER AND DISPERSION
If Edward Teller was "the Father of the H-Bomb," Albert Einstein could be said with equal justice to have been its grandfather. At Teller's urging, Einstein sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging development of atomic weapons; no letter from Teller, then known to only a few scientists, would have been sufficient to launch the undertaking that sent J. Robert Oppenheimer to find a proper site upon which to build a laboratory before he had passed his fortieth birthday. Soon after Oppenheimer selected a boys' camp he had attended as the location of "the Lab," Teller was on the scene. Theirsubsequent achievement was proclaimed by Roosevelt's successor, Harry S. Truman, to be "the greatest achievement of organized science in history." Many at the time believed that their nuclear weapons had secured Allied victory over Japan. Crowned with laurels, encomiated in purple prose by the press, asked their advice on a multitude of matters domestic and foreign, most nuclear scientists were content to speak to what they knew and understood, with enormously beneficial results.
A few, most conspicuously Teller, answered any question asked with the confidence of men of narrow education who have known only success. Teller himself became very influential--he gave briefings to a sequence of presidents from Roosevelt through Reagan, and sometimes to the entire cabinet. He was presented a medal by President Kennedy in 1962, and by 1987 he was telling audiences, "I have experience that our president [it was Ronald Reagan at the time] is a very good listener." By then he was so frequent a visitor to the White House that he did not need to ask the location of the washrooms on the ground floor.2
Teller and his immediate circle had strong views about which cities should decline and which should arise, and spoke of such matters with the self-assurance of those who had had not just one great success, the atomic bomb, but a second--the hydrogen bomb. They could even claim a third--city building. They and their military partners were the first Americans since 1776 to have made a city--from plan to the steeple of the town hall--and they had done it three times: at Los Alamos; at "Uranium City," Oak Ridge, in Tennessee; and at "Plutonium City," Hanford, in Washington State. Before the arrival on the scene of the atomic scientists, with their military partners, the term "new town" had long meant only greenbelt suburbs, not freestanding cities. The Highland Parks and Oak Parks were supporting players, not protagonists; moons, not planets. Kohler was to Sheboygan what Mariemont was to Cincinnati and what Reston and Columbia would be to Washington--handsome but collateral. Los Alamos grew to have more than twelve thousand people, Oak Ridge nearlythirty thousand, and Raymond, Washington, of which the Hanford works is a part, nearly forty thousand.3
"The Lab" at Los Alamos was itself the nucleus of the shiny new technopolis that grew around it, as hierarchic sociologically as any garrison town or warship. Equally straightforward in design, intention, and governance were the other two towns brought into quick life by the ironically named Manhattan Project. Manhattan was a long time a-building, an organic growth, like an animal. The atomic towns were necessary but unnatural, as artificial as prosthetic limbs or mechanical livers. They had no past, no traditions, no subcultures of size, no layered continuities, and no complexities like those of New York City. Manhattan might be guided or cajoled, but it could never be governed as Oak Ridge or Hanford or Los Alamos could be governed.
Those appointed to manage these humming hives of science were protected from internal dissent, while basking in the world's wonder, the darlings of an American culture notoriously sentimental about technology. For years, Teller seemed credible on any subject he chose to discuss, though he had no training in the messiness of democratic institutions or in the complexities and ambiguities that are typically the truths discovered through an education in the humanities. No wonder it went to his head. Consider, please, Teller's environmental and sociological recommendations for Alaska: he was said by the later chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, James Schlesinger, to have difficulty discerning "environmental aesthetics," an understatement akin to calling a nuclear explosion "unpleasant." Teller was wont to refer to his hubris as merely a desire "to remedy nature's oversights." One such remedy was Project Chariot, a plan to make a harbor in Alaska by moving aside seventy million cubic yards of permafrost by programmed nuclear explosions. He tried that out on George Rogers, educated at Harvard but resident in Alaska, who later reported their breakfast conversation this way: "I said well, the Native people, they depend on the sea mammals and the caribous. He said well, they're going to have to change their way of life. I said what arethey going to do? Well, he said, when we have the harbor we can create coal mines in the Arctic, and they can become coal miners."4
Teller's phenomenal memory, quickness of synthesis, confident narrowness of vision, and crabbed moral sense were observed by colleagues as soon as he arrived at Los Alamos. After he left "the Lab," he displayed those qualities not only in his advocacy of his Arctic harbor but also in urging the dispersion of the cities of the "lower forty-eight." He was believed to have proposed damming the Straits of Gibraltar to irrigate the Sahara--though losing Venice in the process. That tale may be apocryphal, but he did convince several U.S. administrations to subsidize his planning process for a bomb-blasted pathway for a new canal across Central America and another to replace that across the Suez. No wonder it required the threat of revolt by biologists and Alaska natives to withstand his sustained effort to use nuclear explosions to build a new harbor on the Arctic shore. At the flood tide of his own enthusiasm, he said to a press conference in Anchorage in June 1959: "If your mountain is not in the right place, just drop us a card."5
Teller did not succeed in moving mountains, but he did succeed in moving a lot of people. No one needed to drop him a card to spur him to do so.
THE DISPERSION LOBBY
The dispersion that Teller and his colleagues advocated was not accomplished by them alone. It was compatible with some centrifugal impulses in the American tradition--though I think these impulses are overestimated in most writing on the subject. It was also good business. Great corporate interests were delighted to find justification in the arguments offered by the atomic scientists for a strategy of breaking up the old cities, spreading them out, and building new ones, a process in which a great deal of money could be made. This dispersion-industrial complex had come from small beginnings andhad been growing in influence. But after the prestige of the atomic scientists and the patriotism they could rally were brought to the cause, a great deal more gasoline, cement, automobiles, asphalt, steel, and real estate were sold. The nation was transformed: to the satisfaction of some, to the profit of some, and with dangerous consequences at the fringes of dispersed settlement.
By the 1980s and 1990s, the dispersion-industrial complex was fully operational, its messages flooding the airwaves and its lobbying richly rewarded at budget hearings. The course of history may not be changed by successful lobbying and governmental subsidies, but the magnitude of a historical surge can be. So it was with the pace and volume of migration out of the old industrial cities. There are centrifugal propensities present in all cities, worldwide, and there is a tradition of westering among European Americans entering North America from the eastern seaboard. But the opposites to these statements are also true. There are centripetal propensities in the countryside worldwide, and powerful traditions in the United States, as in Europe and Asia, of country people going to the city when they can. Furthermore, all European Americans did not enter North America from the east, and the ancestors of all Americans did not come from Europe. Clustering, gathering, nucleating, and centering traditions were and are also potent in our history.
Bearing these countervailing impulses in mind, I believe that the continental migrations of the last half of the twentieth century were artificially enlarged and prolonged. Cold War policies played into industrial and commercial objectives, and the taxpayers paid for it. The patriotic, industrial, and commercial sponsors of those subsidies did not include in their planning a due regard for the consequences of their actions. In my view, it is high time for these subsidies to be reexamined by the taxpayers, and for frugality to be encouraged by decency. Those who care about the personal safety of their fellow citizens may also care both about their checkbooks and about the degradation of the earth. There is a great deal more to this story than cheap land and personal preference. Among other things, this bookwill offer some answers to the question "How come the land out there seemed so cheap?"
Changing things will not be easy. The inertia of vested and deeply invested programs and bureaucracies is often sustained long after their initial justifications have faded from memory. That has been the way of agricultural subsidies for crops in surplus, and of tariff protection for ancient arthritic corporations sustained as if they were infant industries. In Washington, the reform-minded learn soon enough that there is a subterranean landscape excavated and bored to accommodate lobbyists' back channels from K Street to Capitol Hill. Along its catacombs of ancient alliances, affinities, conveniences, and habits await doorkeepers, gatekeepers, and guides, holding torches aloft with one hand while keeping the other palm-up for tips. However anachronistic or pernicious an old way of doing business as usual may become, however distant memories of how it all started may be, it will be reinforced from the chambers of that subterranean city until finally something happens to send the rats scurrying back to their lair. Thus it has been with the Cold War dispersion strategies. Now, that "something" is approaching.
At this juncture, it may be useful to the reader to have available in one place some of the key numbers confirming the general themes of this work: that thousands of people are moving unwarned into firetraps every day; indeed, they are being encouraged to settle there by taxpayer subsidies--among them direct loans to developers--federally insured mortgages, roads, and insurance rates kept artificially low by state regulators. The devastating hurricanes of 2005, Katrina and Rita, reinforced the similarities of the circumstances of Americans now at risk of catastrophic wildfire to those now settling, and resettling, into flood zones, encouraged by federal flood insurance. In both instances, individual choices are being made in fields of force determined by huge amounts of taxpayers' money, inducing settlement in dangerous places. And lives are being unnecessarily lost.
Seven of the nine most fire-endangered states are also among those gaining most population. Since 1950, nearly half the nation's populationgrowth has occurred in these fire-prone seven. In the same period, wildfires have doubled in frequency and in the size of the areas burned each year, both in total acreage across the country--eight million acres in several recent years--and in the average size of the areas burned each year. Nevada, the most fire-prone of all states, was also the most rapidly growing in population. Furthermore, within each fire-prone state, the most fire-prone communities were among the fastest growing: in New Mexico, the counties containing Santa Fe and Albuquerque grew from 38,000 to 136,000 and 146,000 to 581,000; the most fire-endangered city on the Colorado Front Range, Boulder, grew from 48,000 to 278,000 people.
The billions in federal mortgage insurance and highway subsidies spent to underwrite this growth have been in effect transfer payments from the citizens of older cities being stripped of population to the new, widespread, fire-endangered cities of the West where that uprooted population is settling. On the receiving end of these subsidized population transfers, in the last three years the annual costs of firefighting and restoration after wildfire have run over $2 billion a year. As more and more people settle in firetraps, there are also more and more wildfires, and the fires that occur are twice as big, on average, and much more costly than they were a mere two decades ago.
California is among the most fire-prone of states. When it burns--or floods--it does so expensively, largely because it has encouraged people to come and live in dangerous places without adequate warning about both fire and floods. Of the costliest fires in the nation's history, twenty-two of thirty-eight have been in California. In 1991, the Oakland/Berkeley Tunnel Fire alone cost twenty-five lives, 3,400 buildings, and $2 billion. That seemed big until 1993, when the total cost of wildfires in California exceeded $2.1 billion--and yet the people kept following the subsidies into fire and flood zones.
The two problems of fire and flood have much in common, and policy toward each is in urgent need of reform. Though the focus of this book is on fire, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we can at least allude to the failures of policy and practice that preceded andfollowed that human tragedy. And events in New Orleans are fair warning--fire and flood are two apocalyptic forces that are at once opposite in chemistry and similar in their disastrous effects upon people. Therefore we must ask: What might happen in Boulder or Santa Fe if the present trend toward greater and more damaging wildfires continues? What if there is a fiery Katrina on the flanks of the Rockies?
In the winter of 2004-2005, fifty-eight thousand houses were under construction in one California county in areas flooded as recently as 1997. In the five counties of Colorado that suffered most from recent fires, there was at the same time a construction boom of houses set in the most dangerous portions of those counties. Over the din of hammers and saws, voices are heard calling for federal fire insurance, which would be another taxpayer inducement for people to assume undue risk--in this case fire--as federal flood insurance already induces them to accept undue risk of flood. The taxpayers pick up the financial cost and the people flooded or incinerated pay the cost in death and destruction; half of federally insured flood insurance covers properties already flooded once; one in four has had four or more claims, or claims exceeding twice their initial value; one Houston house that cost $114,000 has claimed $806,000 in federal flood insurance; one Canton, Mississippi, house valued at $49,000 has claimed $161,000. The American taxpayer is paying these bills. Even without federal fire insurance, that taxpayer is on the hook for the subsidies that draw people into danger and also for the $2 billion a year that goes into rescuing them and putting them back into danger again. And the highest prices of all are being paid by the courageous flood fighters and firefighters. Too often they pay with their lives when things go wrong.
The conditions for catastrophe are accumulating. Nature has long been the loser in the environmentally heedless dispersion of urban America, and nature is nursing its wrath. As the climate warms, wildfire will increase, while at the same time more and more people are being subsidized by the government to move where wildfire willstrike. Soon enough, disaster will become catastrophe. These pages urge that things be done to slow the pace at which that catastrophe is being made more likely and more terrible. The best way to stop doing dumb things is to recognize how dumb they were and are. Dumb and wrong.
That is the first of many value judgments in these pages. Though I have been admonished by social scientists to be resolutely secular and statistical, a values-based discourse seems to me natural when recommending changes in behavior. In my view, a civil war is being fought between humans in North America and the rest of creation. There are good, prudent, fiscally sound reasons for ceasing that war, yet the primary case made in this book is a religious and ethical one.
That is why Jonathan Edwards will have the last word. Edwards stands as the polar opposite of Edward Teller, though both learned from fire. The eighteenth-century theologian was the first American to state an environmental philosophy recognizing that all human pretensions have natural limits. He had observed fire firsthand, as a tool for agriculture. Teller, the twentieth-century scientist, had observed its effects on a vaster scale. Heedless and hubristic, he had rejoiced in what he saw. In retrospect, I suggest that Teller represents a technocratic, dominance-seeking epoch in human history that has done its best and, we may hope, its worst. Edwards, I believe, holds out to humankind a humbler yet grander future than any that might be achieved by narrowly technical means.
Copyright © 2006 by Roger G. Kennedy