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How Communities Are Remaking Themselves To Become Fire Resistant

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

We've been here before - a wildfire forces hundreds of thousands from their homes, exhausted firefighters struggle to keep up with its speed and intensity, smoke blankets cities. This cycle seems to play out every year, as it has this summer in California and Colorado. But can we prevent it? To try and answer that, we're going to start with NPR's Nathan Rott, who's covered many fires. And, Nate, I'll put that question to you. Are these types of record-breaking fires preventable?

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: No. And I don't want to pop any bubbles, but, you know, fire is always going to happen. Big fire is always going to happen because it's natural. What's unnatural is how often these types of major wildfires are occurring. Nine of the top 10 largest fires in California history have occurred in just the last decade. And that is not normal. That is due to us. But because it's due to us, that means there are things that we can do to bring that frequency down.

PFEIFFER: Such as - what? - more firefighters, more equipment?

ROTT: Well, I'm going to let Tom Harbour answer that. He used to be the national fire chief for the U.S. Forest Service.

TOM HARBOUR: No. We can't one more engine, one more hand crew our way out of this. It's just not going to be.

ROTT: He points out that idea, you know, that attitude that we can just firefight our way out of this problem, is partly what put us in this place. When you look at why major wildfires are happening more frequently, there's three big reasons. One is climate change, right? We're making the world warmer. Another is that we as a species have a tendency to start fires. More than 80% of the wildfires in the U.S. are caused by humans. And the third is our history of fire suppression. For more than 100 years, we've been putting out fires in places where they are supposed to burn, which means that when a fire starts, it's got that much more vegetation to burn.

PFEIFFER: But, Nate, if those three reasons you just outlined are due to humans, then we could theoretically change our ways and see wildfires decrease. Could that happen?

ROTT: Absolutely. Yeah. And look; we have made strides in that regard. You know, but the scale of the problem is so big that it's going to take a lot of time, which is why Tom Harbour says extreme fires are not going to suddenly drop away.

HARBOUR: As bad as it is, it's going to get worse. And it's going to get worse for another decade or two, even with us adopting some of these mitigations.

ROTT: So in the meantime, Harbour says, we need to prioritize helping communities better prepare themselves for when these sorts of big fires occur.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Nathan Rott, thank you for that. And now we turn to NPR's Lauren Sommer, who's been looking into exactly what Nate just talked about, how communities are preparing. Lauren, what have you learned about that?

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Yeah. I talked to a California community that was really one of the first to start this - the town of Big Bear in the southern California mountains. Their fire chief, Jeff Willis, says it began in 2003 with a wildfire known as the Old Fire.

JEFF WILLIS: There was three or four hundred houses that were lost, so that was a big moment of recognition, is what I would say.

SOMMER: Willis says that fire showed all the ways they were vulnerable. The forests around them were dense and overgrown. The homes had wood roofs and dry, flammable brush. So the town put in sweeping new rules, like requiring homeowners to trim dry vegetation around their homes.

WILLIS: You know, that was a heck of an effort. Gradually over time, although initially controversial, I think we made tremendous strides.

SOMMER: They installed evacuation signs and replaced more than 1,000 wood roofs by offering grants to homeowners.

WILLIS: Unfortunately, there's a lot more that we should do.

SOMMER: The problem is that vegetation grows back, Willis says, so you have to stay on top of it year after year. And that takes money.

WILLIS: Essentially what I would need - and I'm know I'm not alone from a fire chief's perspective - we would need to double our budget.

SOMMER: Big Bear has relied on federal and state grants over the years to prepare for wildfires. But as more places do this, that money is harder to get. In March, the community also voted down a new tax measure for the fire department, so now the department is looking at cutting firefighting staff.

CRYSTAL KOLDEN: Yeah. There's definitely not enough economic support.

SOMMER: Crystal Kolden is a fire scientist at the University of California, Merced.

KOLDEN: How we have always addressed natural hazards as a nation is that we have invested in reducing risk with federal tax dollars because natural hazard reduction is a social good.

SOMMER: Kolden says most communities are really on their own to figure this out.

PFEIFFER: And, Lauren, with the wildfires so far this year, can communities expect any new funding on the way to help them?

SOMMER: California lawmakers are trying. They had planned to set up a billion-dollar fund to help communities with all this. But that was canceled with the state's budget shortfall. Another effort by lawmakers also failed last week. So it's really an example of even when the problem is just so clear, this is not easy to do.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Lauren Sommer. Thank you.

SOMMER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.