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Can areas prone to wildfires ever be effectively fireproofed?

Fireproof may not be the best word to use,” says John Woycheese, assistant professor of fire protection engineering. “We can fireproof a building if we make it entirely of steel or concrete and allow no combustibles, such as paper, furniture, or clothing inside. But that would be a pretty miserable place in which to live or work. From the wildfire perspective, we’d have to put that building in the middle of a field with no landscaping around it.

“If you focus on the ‘pure’ wildfires (those with no buildings around), then you have to accept that some trees require fire to release their seeds. Thus: no fire, no new trees. Wildfire is nature’s own ‘spring cleaning.’ It’s a fast way of removing old undergrowth and dead trees to make room for new stuff. Unfortunately, because we believe wildfires are bad—considering the costs of fighting the fires and the dangers posed to firefighters and to homes and other structures—we extinguish smaller fires that would otherwise burn this undergrowth, thereby leaving behind copious amounts of fuel. This brush and tinder give a wildfire enough energy to damage even healthy trees.

“Perhaps a better question is, ‘Can we stop the devastation caused by out-of-control wildfires?’ The short answer is no. We, as a society, are not willing to make the appropriate sacrifices. “An example that best illustrates this comes out of California. In 1991, a devastating fire in Berkeley Hills destroyed over 3,000 dwellings, worth about $1.5 billion. Contributing to the devastation were the neighborhood streets: they were too narrow to accommodate fire trucks when cars were parked on both sides. Fast forward eight or nine years, after many of the homes had been rebuilt: people were back to parking on both sides of the street.

“But let me get down off my soapbox and point to some excellent work that’s moving us in the right direction. The Firewise program [www.firewise.org] educates the public on how to protect their homes from wildfire. While such safeguards won’t make a house fireproof, the program provides information and tools that can help reduce risks and increase knowledge. And knowledge, in all its forms, is a beautiful thing.”

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Last modified: Dec 16, 2004, 14:02 EST
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