My View: Forest Service failed to protect lodge
Even though the U.S. Forest Service preaches the creation and maintenance of "defensible space" for dwellings in the so-called wildland-urban interface, the agency did not practice what it preaches on a building it owns leading up to the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge.
The Forest Service owns Multnomah Falls Lodge, which has a wooden shake roof (yes, quite historical and all, but there is far less history if the building burns), and allowed vegetation to grow to the lodge's very edges. Also, an above-ground propane tank was sited far too close. An iconic lodge, but a firetrap nonetheless.
Losing Multnomah Falls Lodge to a forest fire would have been extremely poor public relations for the Forest Service, the agency that brought you Smokey Bear. Multnomah Falls receives between 1 million and 1.5 million visitors annually. Since the Forest Service has a blank check from Congress (as for all fires), no money was spared to save the lodge.
As flames — and, more important, airborne embers — approached the lodge, the Forest Service poured on water (pronounced "money"). The Forest Service brought in a Eugene-Springfield fire battalion chief who ordered up a ladder truck and four fire engines from Portland, as well as five water tenders from Forest Grove, Gaston, Tualatin Valley, and Hillsboro. Everything within 40 yards of the lodge and the lodge roof itself was repeatedly soaked.
No sylvan homeowner should expect the Forest Service to spend as lavishly to protect their property.
The economist priesthood has a term that's relevant here: moral hazard. It means a "lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences." It often is applied to Wall Street bankers, backed by government, playing with other people's money. The rewards of profit are privatized, but the risks of loss are socialized. Moral hazard is an appropriate concept to apply to owners of private (whether first, second or third) homes in the wildland-urban interface.
Choosing to live in or near a forest that is periodically sculpted by fire is comparably imprudent to choosing to live below sea level in New Orleans or just above it in the Florida Keys or in Tornado Alley or in the Mississippi River floodplain or in the storm-surge zones of greater New York.
While millions of people do it, they should not be shielded from the consequences of their imprudent choices by declarations of natural disaster when very predictable — though aperiodic — tempests of nature strike.
Please do not get me wrong. I feel the suffering of my fellow Americans, be they impoverished Puerto Ricans and Virgin Islanders or affluent Houstonians. (Though I must admit to relishing the irony of a climate change-intensified Hurricane Harvey raining its fury upon the American city that epitomizes the fossil-fuel industrial complex.)
However, it is simply not fiscally, socially, economically or environmentally desirable for the federal government to pay people to rebuild in the same place — at least without dramatic improvements in preparedness and, in any case, not more than once.
Whether the event is flood, hurricane, tornado, storm surge, drought or fire, there needs to be more personal responsibility among private property owners, less post-event largesse from the federal government, and more regulation from local governments so private property owners do not ride free on other American taxpayers.
While no one has totaled the massive taxpayer expenditures spent defending private homes that are inadequately constructed and maintained to be resistant to fire, the dollar/firetrap number is quite large.
Not to mention the firefighters put in harm's way to save lives and property that should not have been at such risk.
Andy Kerr (www.andykerr.net) lives in a wildland-urban interface near Ashland, where he advocates for Oregon's wild lands, wild waters and wildlife.