Friday, August 10, 2012

Where houses burn...

(This was developed from my reply to Richard Anderson in the post on lions and hounds below).

Earlier this year I had discussions with several friends about where houses burn in forest fires in the west, and several agreed that it is mostly-- overwhelmingly-- up in the woods, where new houses occupy sites where no one ever built anything but a line shack or hunting cabin before WW II or even 1970.

(They remind me of places in the eastern or other damper forests-- a subtle European cultural preference?)

Hop Canyon, south of Magdalena, is an old subdivision high in the P-J zone, surrounded by ponderosa forest and, higher up, doug fir. It is full of expensive handsome houses, all built within the 30- some years I have lived here. I have friends there. But-- not one homeowner is as far as I know a New Mexican by birth; maybe not even a westerner, unless coastal Californians count as such. That is, they didn't grow up in a fire ecology (see Stephen Pyne). Mark my words: old charred stumps dot the canyon slopes; it has burned in living memory, and it will burn again. Despite their having a volunteer fire crew, an uphill dead- end canyon with a single winding dirt road that is both entrance and exit with no other way out, ten miles from town on its near side, is no place to be when the fire comes back.

These are for the most part well- educated, independently wealthy or retired, intelligent folks; why do so many pay minimal attention to fire? Some conscientiously remove underbrush, browse etc, which will work until a BIG fire (see "Los Alamos", which lost entire neighborhoods of affluent educated people). The less careful don't even do that-- some properties resemble dwellings in the Pacific Northwest, or Tolkien, with fir branches trailing on the roof...

Now multiply throughout the west; think of Colorado (where there are subdivisions in even more volatile oak chaparall), and western NM in the past season...

Chas? Nerds? Peculiar?

7 comments:

Moro Rogers said...

If they can afford a fancy house in CA they are probably insured, I guess. (Also they may not have experienced a house fire before, it's kind of traumatic.=p)

Anonymous said...

We in UK have similar problems with people ( property speculators, idealists, fools) who insisted on building houses on Flood Plains, and now want government money spent on flood protection ! ....There is truth in the Old Adage - Let the buyers beware, and always take advice from a good surveyor before a purchase...don't expect others to bail you out of a situation of your own making !

JohnnyUK

Chas S. Clifton said...

I plead guilty. According to a photo that I found in my house (built 1965) when I moved it, the area was mostly Gambel oak. Taken in 1975, the picture showed only a few small ponderosa pines

Now they are big. Unfortunately, my dear spouse hates to see a tree cut. I was so happy that the engine crew protecting this house during our 2005 evacuation cut some of the big junipers--I wish they had cut them all. (I wrote a thank-you letter to that fire department.)

Mitigation helps. Yes, a big firestorm can sweep over everything, but not all fires are big. Often it's just the ember blown under the wooden deck or on the roof that gets the house.

The other thing which is a problem in some mountain areas--driveways that are too narrow or steep for fire trucks. I know of some expensive new houses near me that I would be leery of trying to reach in a four-wheel-drive brush truck.

Nothing like putting yourself and your crew at the end of a dead-end, narrow, tree-lined road.

If the UPS driver complains about your driveway, cut the trees back!

Stingray said...

The Los Alamos situation is compounded by man made borders as much as the natural ones. Yes, the houses up the mountain side were the first to burn in Cerro Grande, and first threatened in Las Conchas, but on the flip side they very much weren't the rich schlub with bad decision making skills housing set.

With the townsite surrounded by Indian reservation, national lab property, national forest service land, and Bandelier for a cherry on top, things are built on anything even vaguely flat that isn't already spoken for. The houses that went in CG were almost exclusively duplexes and quads built shortly after the project days ended, and having lived in some and known others, I'm not convinced their loss was exclusively a bad thing ("Always remember, your Gov't. Issued _____ was built by the lowest bidder" was very apparent. Very.) That said, there was still a measurable contribution from the "I have a PhD so I know everything" effect of coneheads living in them. Exactly as described, the trees were thick and close in to the houses, the underbrush was uncleared, and you could fall out of an airplane onto the beds of pine needles without worrying about the landing because all that made these bleh-tastic Gov't housings more rustic and picturesque and attracted deer and so forth.

As Chas mentions, mitigation helps, and there are several companies seemingly exclusively in the business of Defensible Space operating in the area now. The homes rebuilt on the dangerous bits of mountain almost universally sport quite a bit of clear area around the actual building, and amazingly enough, the inches-thick carpets of dead pine needles that used to comprise entire yards seem curiously absent there as well. Sadly there are always people who are late to the party, and there are still a few holdouts in high risk areas, but the ratio is greatly improved after the rebuilding.

It seems fairly understood at this point where the fire will be, and that it is in fact Will Be, but is hinged off the counter point that there isn't really anywhere else to go.

Steve Bodio said...

Chas, Stingray-- these are so good I might put them up front in a new one!

Anonymous said...

Same problem off the coast of N. C., where wealthy people keep building and rebuilding extremely pretentious vacation mansions on shifting barrier islands that get wiped clean after each hurricane....L.B.

dennisranch said...

I am glad to see someone addressing this... so many foolish people who move into an area yet fail to visit with the old timers (if there are any) or to look at what has occurred in the past in that area, flood plains, blizzards, etc... good post!