Government policies are partially to blame for the devastation caused by wildfires, former U.S. National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy ’49 said at a Berkeley College Master’s Tea Wednesday afternoon.
Kennedy, the author of the forthcoming book “Wildfire and Americans: How to Save Lives, Property and Your Tax Dollars,” attributed the United States’ wildfire problem mainly to the increased number of people living in high-risk areas with hot, dry climates and large concentrations of vegetation. During the Cold War, the U.S. government encouraged residents of highly-populated cities to relocate to less developed areas because officials were worried about the potential for a Soviet strike on major cities to debilitate American industrial production, he said.
“People were moving increasingly into places which can and will burn,” Kennedy said.
He cited the cities of Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs and Los Angeles and the states of Montana, Wyoming and Nevada as particularly high risk areas that have seen huge population increases in the past 50 years. Nevada’s population has increased by 1,459 percent since 1950, making it the state with the most people living in danger of death by fire, he said.
Kennedy emphasized that wildfires are not inherently problematic unless there are people living nearby.
“Nobody is for fire suppression,” said Kennedy. “Fire is nature’s purging mechanism. It’s a component of natural reality.”
He said the government must stop encouraging people to move into fire-prone areas. There are still a number of dispersion laws in place which prevent people from relocating to safer areas, he said. For instance, it is easier to get mortgage insurance in high-risk areas in the Southwest than in the Midwest, which has seen its population decline as a result.
Federal insurance policies should also be changed to discourage people from staying in high-risk areas, Kennedy said.
“You should be allowed to rebuild once or twice with federal dollars, but after that it’s on you,” he said.
As for those who live in high risk areas, Kennedy said the government must accept responsibility for its past actions and take care of them, despite the risk to rescue workers.
“We are going to kill people this summer,” he said. “We are going to kill people sending them to rescue people we sent into places that are unsafe.”
Kennedy also advocated prescribed burning, which involves setting carefully planned and controlled forest fires to purge flammable material that could cause a larger, more dangerous fire if left in place.
Today, many high-risk areas have been closed to cultivation and settlement, including some of the states in the Dust Bowl and national forests in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Kennedy noted that most deaths by wildfire have occurred in those areas, as well as in New England — particularly Massachusetts and Connecticut — where there is a high concentration of flammable vegetation.
“If there were another two degrees of average temperature in those two states, it would lead to desiccation and you would have a gigantic fire trap,” he said.
Adam Walker ’09 said he enjoyed the talk because he had never been exposed to the topic before.
“It was interesting to hear someone talking about wildfires because you don’t hear about them a lot here in New England,” Walker said. “I had no idea wildfires were so connected to our living patterns.”