See more of the story

I watched flames dance on the nearby ridge. The air was hot and dry, the night suffused with a red haze. Too tired and too hot to sleep, I lay atop my sleeping bag mesmerized by the fire. It had menaced the incident command post days before, nearly forcing relocation. We were wary. It was mid-October and I was seven days into a fire assignment on the 2003 Old Fire complex in the San Bernardino Mountains that lasted until Thanksgiving.

That year Southern California fires cost over $3 billion, burned more than 750,000 acres, destroyed 3,710 homes and killed 24 people.

Nearly 17 years later, not much has changed. Wildfires are still burning millions of acres each year, destroying homes, killing people, decimating economies and environments. And we continue to focus on trying to put them out — rather than on helping communities prepare for wildfire. More funding and focus needs to go toward local communities in high-risk areas to help them build effective risk reduction programs.

Perhaps we’re missing the forest for the trees.

Does wildfire risk reduction work? As noted in the report “Lessons Learned from the Waldo Canyon Fire” (which I helped write), “The cost benefit ratio for the mitigation efforts for the Cedar Heights neighborhood was 1/257; $300,000 was spent on mitigation work and $77,248,301 in losses were avoided. Combined cost benefit ratio was 1/517 for the three neighborhoods with the highest impacts.”

That’s an impressive return on investment.

Wildfires aren’t going away, and we don’t necessarily want them to. Small, low-intensity fires at regular intervals are critical to maintaining healthy forests.

But an array of forces — Smokey Bear’s 75-year-old message about the importance of preventing forest fires, previous national policy to suppress fires, increased building in the wildland-urban interface and, yes, climate change — have combined to produce the devastating fires we see today.

National and state land management and fire management agencies are changing their policies to allow “good fires” to burn for ecological benefits. They are also working to reduce the buildup of fuels near high fire-risk communities. But we won’t “catch up” anytime soon.

A 2009 federal study concluded that creating “fire adapted communities” was the best hope to mitigate exponentially increasing wildfire costs. It stressed that pre-fire mitigation could help communities live safely with wildfire on the landscape without the need for extensive suppression efforts.

To be clear, not all structures can survive all wildfires. Most of the current West Coast fires demonstrate especially destructive extreme fire behavior due to Santa Ana winds. But adaptive measures greatly increase survivability. Mitigation experts have identified the elements that adapt a community to fire:

• The community needs local understanding of where its risk is. The town of Paradise, Calif., is a good example of a community that was wholly at risk. But most towns have only certain at-risk neighborhoods or areas, depending on fuel buildup, topography, prevailing winds and structure development.

• Key to reducing risk is hardened structures. In terms of wildfire, that means replacing combustible portions of a structure such as wood shake roofs or wood siding with less flammable materials, and installing metal screening on vents.

Coupled with hardened structures is the creation of defensible space, clearing combustibles from around a structure up to 100 feet. Removing potential fuels slows the fire and provides a place for firefighters to deploy.

• Most civilian fire deaths occur during evacuations, which often happen too late or result in traffic jams because there are not enough exit routes from a community. Establishing many safe evacuation routes helps move people out of danger quickly.

• Safe zones are a last resort. They are usually a large open area where fire is less likely to reach: a football field, golf course, etc. But extreme fire behavior makes safe zones less reliable.

• Both public and private land managers should work to reduce hazardous fuel buildup and create healthy, resilient forests near communities. This might be accomplished by thinning, harvesting or prescribed burns.

Appropriate land management also means restricting development in high wildfire environments. That’s a difficult sell. Few communities have wholly embraced the curtailment of new development.

Community fire adaptation requires a local mitigation collaborative made up of key community stakeholders — state, federal and local policymakers, landowners and residents. The concept was embraced by the nation’s fire world, but sufficient funding was not provided.

For decades, anemic national mitigation funding focused on messaging in hopes that education and awareness would result in mitigation. It hasn’t worked.

The fire world has spent billions developing a state-of-the art wildfire suppression infrastructure that provides for equipment, training, staffing, teams, logistics, supplies and expertise that can be mobilized quickly and efficiently. Conversely, very little has been spent to build community wildfire risk reduction programs focused on what can be done before the fire starts.

Developing, creating and maintaining a focused local wildfire mitigation program takes funding, expertise and staffing, things most high-risk fire communities don’t have. Several interagency programs are trying to address those shortfalls. National Mitigation Best Practices Training teaches specialists what methods work to engage residents and communities to reduce risk. National Community Mitigation Assistance Teams (CMATs) deploy to communities to help them create strong mitigation programs. Both these programs are new, developed in the last five years, and are still evolving. Both programs are free and supported by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters.

Those are only two pieces of the puzzle. The nation needs a national mitigation infrastructure (like the one that supports the national fire suppression effort) to provide interagency coordination of funding, consistent training for mitigation specialists and a focus on strategic work in high risk areas.

Without a coordinated, national, strategic effort to support mitigation at the local level, we’ll see more homes destroyed, more lives lost, more tax dollars go up in smoke. If we continue to invest only in firefighting, we’ll get ... more firefighting.

What’s the saying? “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.”

Pam Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., and Boise, Idaho, recently retired as the national program manager of Wildland Urban Interface/Fire Adapted Communities for the U.S. Forest Service.