15 Nov 2009, 11:08am
Economics History Management Policy
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Spark and Sprawl: A World Tour

Stephen J. Pyne. 2008. Spark and Sprawl: A World Tour. Forest History Today, Fall 2008.

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

Wildland-urban interface” is a dumb term for a dumb problem, and both have dominated the American fire scene for nearly twenty years. It’s a dumb term because “interface” is a pretty klutzy metaphor and because the phenomenon of competing borders it describes is more complex than that geeky term suggests. At issue is a scrambling of landscape genres beyond the traditional variants of the American pastoral. It is a mingling of the quasi-urban and the quasi-wild into something that, depending on your taste, resembles either an ecological omelet or a coniferous strip mall. That means it also stirs together urban fire services with wildland fire agencies, two cultures with no more in common than an opera house and a grove of old-growth ponderosa pine. It is an unstable alloy, a volatile compound of matter and antimatter, and it should surprise no one that it explodes with increasing regularity.

It’s a dumb problem because technical solutions exist. We know how to keep houses from burning on the scale witnessed over the past two decades. We know convincingly that combustible roofing is lethal; we have known this for maybe ten thousand years. The wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire problem (a.k.a., the interface or I-zone) thus differs from fire management in wilderness, for example, where fire practices must be grounded, if paradoxically, in cultural definitions and social choices; there is no code to ensure that the right fire happens in the right way.

That the intermix problem persists testifies to its relatively trivial standing in the larger political universe, even as construction pushes ever outward into the environmental equivalent of subprime landscapes, which from time to time then crash catastrophically. In that regard it remains on the fringe. …

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