Wildfires, cities, rural landscapes, and the wildland-urban interface

Stay out of the woods, my pretties!

In a very smart and measured editorial last Sunday in the Denver Post, Professor Lloyd Burton of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado, Denver, pointed out how language shapes our views of wildfires and forest management:

We have three problems with our narrative: First, it is an urban narrative applied to a mostly rural landscape; that is, it reports on [wildland-urban interface] wildfires as if they were urban fires. The initial focus is always on proximate causes (what ignited the fire), followed by a quest for fault-finding, usually around the issues of why the fire wasn’t immediately eradicated or why everyone may not have been moved out of harm’s way.

Applying the urban narrative to the WUI also stresses the necessity for the immediate and total suppression of all fires, whenever and wherever they arise. In the urban context, this is absolutely understandable. To do anything other than that would invite catastrophe in our densely populated cities. But applying this urban expectation to WUI wildfires is both futile and inappropriate.

A second problem is that the news media mindset and resulting language of its discourse is saturated in metaphors of war. We are treated daily to visuals of ex-military aircraft bombing fires and structures with toxic fire-retardant. We have strong, courageous, well-trained and well-disciplined “fighters” in the field being coordinated by a top-down incident command system; and we use many of the same communications technologies and terms to implement tactical field maneuvers.

So war talk seems nearly as irresistible to reporters and government officials as is the visual coverage of suppression efforts. When we combine use of the war metaphor with the immediate suppression expectation, it casts fire in the role of relentless and implacable enemy. Anything less than its swift and total eradication is cast as a military defeat.

So how is the Denver Post reporting on the wildfires that are tearing up the foothills on the Front Range this summer?  This morning’s headline in the online version of the DP is “Wildfires:  Military on the Attack,” with an accompanying image of a C-130 military plane captioned “the battle to contain devastating wildfires across Colorado reached a new and more aggressive stage Monday as C-130 military tankers joined the fight to bombard the Waldo Canyon blaze with thousands of gallons of fire retardant.”  Sorry, Professor Burton!  We Americans just love our gear and our wars, don’t we?

Me, I think it’s a safe and easy solution to live in cities and towns instead of the WUI, for all kinds of reasons, fire being only just one of them.  U.S. Americans are really strange in their insistence that rural landscapes are safer than urban ones. Maybe my perspective is very Old World, but there’s a reason that  Europeans clustered together in walled cities after the fall of Rome.  (What happens in fairy tales when Hansel and Gretel, or Little Red Riding Hood, wander away from home and into the forest?  Cannibal witches and big, bad wolves prey on them!  Nature plays a malevolent role in fairy tales–think of the thicket of thorns that surround Sleeping Beauty’s castle while she’s enduring her hundred-year nap.)  Maybe it’s because as a woman, I’ve always felt safer in cities, where there are lots of people in the streets (a la Jane Jacobs) who help maintain a kind of social order and whose presence can usually prevent crime (or if not prevent, at least render speedy aid.)  The idea that the rural or wild landscape is somehow healthier seems to me to be a very white and a very masculine position.

I never felt afraid as a runner–even alone, even at night–in Cambridge or Somerville, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, or Providence, R.I. in my mendicant student/VAP days, whereas I feel that I must be more vigilant and more alert running along the rural roads around my parents’ house in Michigan.  The scariest situation I’ve ever had as a runner was just about two miles from their house, when 15 years ago I was chased by a pack of vicious dogs who were apparently notorious in their neighborhood.  (Much to my amazement, after running at top speed while screaming and peeing in my shorts the whole time, a Michigan State Trooper pulled up at the nearest intersection after just 20 or 30 seconds of this!  What luck!  I have never before nor since seen a State Trooper on those roads!  But also:  the semi-feral dog chase never would have happened in the big city.)

Baa Ram U. has established a fund to which the university community (and others) may contribute to help our colleagues and students who have been burned out of their homes in the foothills by the High Park fire west of Fort Collins, but I really wonder if donating money to people who live in the WUI are really our most deserving targets for charitable support.  (Am I being too judgmental here?  Too much of a Grinch?)  Fratguy and I support the local food bank very heavily, and my thinking is that it makes more sense to support all needy people rather than just the unfortunates who lived in the foothills, most of whom chose to live there and even lived there quite nicely in new mini-mansions and second homes.

What do you think about cities, rural landscapes, and the WUI?


30 thoughts on “Wildfires, cities, rural landscapes, and the wildland-urban interface

  1. Fascinating. There is a substantial literature noting that the martial metaphor is an enormous problem in conceptualizing illness and disability for the same reason Professor Burton notes: anything less than the eradication of the illness and disability is cast as a failure, a loss. This is extremely problematic considering that 60-80 percent of the disease footprint in the U.S. is chronic, which is literally defined by the fact that it never entirely goes away (it comes and goes, at best).

    This idea has had some truly awful consequences for the infliction of stigma and shame (and its internalization) on the bodies of vulnerable and disabled people, so I’m generally quite partial to those like Susan Sontag who think we ought to rid ourselves of it.

    More personally, having lived exclusively in big cities all over the U.S. before moving to a semi-rural location surrounded by total rurality, I’ve thought about much about the dangers and feelings of security in each. I feel more secure out here — but that could be entirely illusory. Probably is, in fact.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Dan, on the question of disability and martial metaphors. I think we’re all just temporarily able-bodied, if we’re lucky. (And it’s easier to be disabled in a city, with neighbors, accessible buildings, and paratransit!)


  3. I think some of the urban/rural fear is conditioned – the two places I’ve felt most comfortable walking around by myself at night were tiny rural towns (on in MN, one in TN), and it’s hard to kick some discomfort about walking by myself at night in a lot of cities. (Not the biggest ones, it’s true – NYC wouldn’t bug me, and many European cities are another thing altogether.) Generally, I completely agree about there being safety in having people around (my best example: Philadelphia. I feel sort of out of place in parts of west Philly, but not unsafe, since there are tons of people. But the northern part of the city around Temple, where the streets are deserted and there are burned-out cars and boarded up buildings – VERY scary). But it’s hard to get past the images of urban danger. And I think there is a sense of connection to people in small towns that you don’t have in big cities that can contribute to a sense of safety (my understanding is that the Kitty Genovese story has been somewhat exaggerated, but still, the perception lingers). Not saying therefore small towns are safer than big cities, but that’s how it feels to me.

    (I realize I’m changing the terms here somewhat and that small towns aren’t the same as rural wilderness!)


  4. I’m not an expert, but my understanding is that these wildland fires are 100% definitely going to happen: they even happened when there were no people around at all, ignited by lightning. So the only questions are (1) when are they going to happen and (2) how big are they going to be? And my understanding is that the longer the interval before they happen, the bigger they are going to be.

    So building human structures in these areas is as stupid as building human structures on sandbars in the ocean or sandy banks of massive rivers: you will get burnt, swept away, or flooded. The only question is how much money you are willing to spend to delay the inevitable.

    As far as the meta-question of whether tax-supported government activities should effectively subsidize individuals or corporations that choose to build in these areas, that is a public policy question best left to elected legislatures.


  5. How many of these people building oversize houses up in the Colorado mountains are doing it because they feel safer up there than they would in Denver or Fort Collins, though? (Especially since, due to fires, wildlife encounters, a lack of other services, you’re much less safe up there.) Most of the people that I know who live up in the foothills outside of Denver live there because of the view — particularly if they have a view that allows them to see more mountains, trees, and wildlife than neighbors — and because mountain real estate is a luxury good, a status marker of “Coloradoness.”


  6. Fires are not only inevitable in some wild lands, they’re also essential to the survival of fire-adapted wildernesses. So using a war metaphor to fight and “win” against something essential to health is doubly stupid. Sort of like Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) fighting against taking his bath.


  7. I was going to say, but quixote beat me to it, aren’t some cores necessary? Isn’t that how the ecosystem functions? It is only when you add humans and their big expensive houses to the mix that there are problems.


  8. Historiann: Just saw this tweet, which sums up living in the military-industrial complex center of COS in a nutshell: “C-130 just roared over The Gazette on a bee-line to the #WaldoCanyonFire. Good to see the Air Force on the attack.”

    Actually on beeline, I believe, to Cedar Heights area, exclusive gated community built in fire area.


  9. Meant to add: our conservative libertarian editorialists and congressman were “angry” a day or two ago when it looked like all the big federal firefighting planes weren’t coming exactly here, and they’ve done their usual masterful job of federalizing/militarizing/FEMAizing this whole thing. It’s nice to see that their philosophy of localism, “self-reliance,” and fiscal hawkishness is as hypocritical and meaningless as I always assumed it was.


  10. Paul–I heard about the evacuations down your way a few days ago. But, yes, it’s great to know that the wealthy right-wingers down in the Springs can mobilize Big Gummint when *they* need it!

    Man, you all are even Grinchier than I am about people living in the WUI than I am. I couldn’t believe that after the *first* fire up near Fort Collins this year (the one north of Hwy. 14, forget what it was called), the authorities were considering filing charges against the guy whose (legal, responsible) alcohol campstove started the fire. It’s not like he had an illegal campfire going, or behaved irresponsibly! Maybe the Forest Service is considering charges against the lightning that started the High Park fire.

    When campstoves are outlawed, only outlaws will have campstoves.


  11. You have to read Mike Davis’s _Ecology of Fear_, which is the exact same thing but about California and media panics. He brings out some really interesting ideas, particularly the concept of the “ecotone,” pointing out the problems of fire safety and funding associated with letting the urban/rural border twist and mix and blend like that (the ecotone is where the wilderness and the urban are right up next against each other — he says Los Angeles has the largest ecotone in the world).

    Anyway, it’s great. Everyone should read it and confront their local libertarian/small gummint politicians with it. Looking it up on the web, I see that the chapter I’m thinking of is called “The Case for letting Malibu Burn.” How can you resist a title like that? Go, have fun.


  12. I was a bit taken aback by the DP’s headline as well, although I could see it feeling more like a combat zone if I lived nearer to one of the fires.

    As far as donations go, I’ve sent money to the Colorado Red Cross and am sending off a check to the volunteer fire departments that the Larimer Sheriff’s website mentioned as in need of funds (http://larimersheriff.org/site-page/help-our-volunteer-fire-departments). I’m more sympathetic to people who volunteer their time and effort to help others than to people who simply choose to live near fire zones, I guess – or maybe I’m just more judgmental!


  13. Stephen Pyne wrote a lot about fire as a (trans)human agent and wandered a lot in the proverbial academic wilderness before getting duly credited for some very original thinking at the intersection of culture and combustion. I was going to say that aeons ago in an early job as a temporary National Park Service sedentary history worker in a huge but very eastern park, I got “deputized” as a fire fighter as a brutally cold and snowy winter turned into a hot, dry, fiery April. It was nuts. You worked your regular day job shift, went home and changed, then headed toward the nearest tower of smoke where actual rangers directed you into the woods. You immediately went onto overtime pay plus “hazardous,” which in my lowly case almost tripled my salary. I was dressed more for disco inferno than for some blaze “named” for a geological ridge somewhere. Mostly it was just using the flat edge of a shovel to pound out smoldering clumps of grass, but one baby got away from us and they called in a copter from I don’t know where. I managed to cluelessly get separated from my “squad” and suddenly felt in danger of becoming a statistic as the fire exploded upward into rows of pine trees that had been planted by CCC volunteers decades earlier. Suddenly the copter was hovering about thirty feet overhead and I saw the clamshell bucket open and a swimming-pool sized blob of water gyrating down toward me. I knew this was going to hurt, but not as much as thirteen skin grafts. I was knocked basically senseless, but jumped up and got back to the road, where the rangers were breaking out the cases of Budweiser. It turned out that they later charged some local volunteer firefighters with setting this series of fires, because they could be deputized too, only without the hazardous part. That’s why the fires were always breaking out at about 5 p.m.


  14. Thanks for the references and encouragement to check out Pyne’s and Davis’s work. And thanks, grumpyscholar, for the very pertinent links. I like your style of benevolence! (Why didn’t I think of it myself?)


  15. Very interesting–this discussion strikes very close to home for me, for a few different reasons. 1) About 5 years ago, in a graduate seminar on Thomas Hardy, I remember getting into a fairly contested argument about whether a particular scene of walking through the woods at night in Hardy was written as foreshadowing menace. The 10/12 seminar members who’d grown up in million+ cities all insisted all rural settings were menacing; the other two (including me–I didn’t grow up rural, but spent some time in my childhood in rural areas) argued that walking through known woods on a well-trod footpath (I can’t remember which Hardy novel it was, but that’s how it starts), is actually a much safer proposition than walking through the city at night. The conclusion we came to is that for most people in the 21st-century, rural woodsy areas are read as dangerous–basically the same case that you’re making about why one shouldn’t live there, Historiann–so I find it intriguing that that 21st century literary reading of rural areas is what most of the commentators on this thread are arguing should be the basis of IRL decisions.

    2) I’m in the odd situation of a) having lived through one of the most damaging wildfires in recent Canadian city (bad enough that 1/3 of the population of the small city I was living in at the time was evacuated–the wildfire came from the bush right through the edge of town), and b) presently living in a large, American, Midwestern, crime-ridden city. I have to say that even if there were wildfires every year (rather than every 40-50 years, as once a particular area has been burned it’s not going to catch fire again for decades), I’d be far more safe in that small Canadian city than in my present large Midwestern one; a wildfire that you can see coming from miles away is much easier to get away from than a mugger who shows up every week or two. So I’m really struggling to have much sympathy with those on this thread who claim that city-living is a much safer than rural living–I can only conclude that everyone who is making those remarks is fortunate enough to live in well-funded, well-regulated, crime-free areas of some of the wealthiest cities in North America. I know that when I lived in cities like that I, too, had a rosy view of the safety offered by urban living; since I moved to the central USA, my idea of “urban living”–and its dangers–has seriously changed.


  16. One more thing–on the military language: while the whole “battling fires” vocabulary is as problematic as many people here have said, and for good reasons (wildfires are a natural phenomenon, we won’t be able to control them all, the more we try the less control we’ll have when a big one does come, etc., etc.), the density of the smoke and the use of military equipment does mean that living through a wildfire comes closer to approximating a battlefield than most other situations in which anyone would find themselves in North America, or at least, that’s what the veterans I knew in the small city attacked by a wildfire (mentioned above) told me–a number of cases of PTSD, some going as far back as WWII, were triggered again by that fire. There simply aren’t a lot of other situations in which airplanes and helicopters are constantly flying low overheard, the sky is blacked out by the sun, it’s hard to breathe, and people are scrambling to avoid panic and reach the safest place they can find.


  17. I think that for many people, things that are unfamiliar are the most likely to be seen as menacing. Having lived in suburbs pretty much all of my life, I tend to see both urban AND very rural areas as more dangerous than suburban ones. I’m not sure if that’s actually true or not, but it’s very hard to shake it as a gut reaction.


  18. Not quite appropos of any of these thread-lines, but I’ve always thought that the convergence of the great “Peshtigo” wildfire in northern Wisconsin on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire (Oct. 8, 1871) was a pretty amazing coincidence; almost as providential-feeling as the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and the Second Worst President (r) within hours of each other on the 4th of July in Virginia and Massachusetts, respectively. “Always,” that is, since I *heard* of the Peshtigo fire, which I somehow got through about seventeen levels of formal education without having done. That and the fact that the Chicago fire burned down Walter L. Newberry’s house, but stopped exactly where the front door of the Newberry Library would eventually be. Those two fires were wickedly animist in their own way, kind of like phlogisticated Stonehenge.


  19. The fire in Colorado Springs has burned very close to the city. From the DP article this morning:

    “By early evening, the website for the Flying W Ranch, a Western-themed attraction west of Garden of the Gods, announced that it had ‘burned to the ground.'” Dang. I was going to take some family members there this summer! It’s one of my first memories of Colorado from the first time I visited as a 7-year old. Singing cowboys!

    I hope you’re OK down there in COS, Paul Harvey.


  20. I second Indyanna’s Stephen Pyne reference. He is the fire guy with books on American wild fires, but also covering Australia. His argument about fire as a transhuman phenomenon is pretty neat.

    I grew up in SoCal where we had the annual Holiday Apocalypse. Some combination of fire, mudslide or earthquake would materialize between thanksgiving and Easter and wipe out a subdivision. The fires were always called wild fires, but really they were happening in the (sub)urban landscape. The fire would start in the chaparral on a vacant lot or open space near a subdivision, the wind would whisk up the canyons and the fire would be in people’s backyards before you could say boo. The problem was that people were turning the WUI into the city very quickly, so there was no place for the fire to burn out. And the fire is central to the chaparral ecology. So every fire the authorities put out, was just adding fuel to the next big firestorm.

    I love big cities, especially San Francisco, Vienna, Budapest, and Paris. Right now I live in a small city of 20,000 people in the Upper Midwest. Its pretty and it turns out I like gardening. But most of the time I’d rather live someplace with a metro. But then I probably wouldn’t have a garden. Tradeoffs.


  21. Historiann, thanks for asking, I’m fine here in downtown COS (about 3 miles SE of the evacuated areas) but some faculty in my department who live in NW COS had to evacuate to Denver. Flying W is indeed gone (a real loss for you, given the iconography of your blog), as are quite a few houses in that region (I saw one estimate of about 100, but that’s just a wild guess probably). I saw it happen literally before my own eyes yesterday — at the gym at my campus, which has a great set of windows overlooking the region to the west, I watched about 4:30 p.m. as wind gusts suddenly picked up and unexpectedly shifted direction, fire started racing down the foothills towards town, and by the time I left the smoke/haze gave everything that movie-set post-apocalyptic feel. Woodland Park and nearby just now being evacuated, I guess that means Hwy. 24 remains in peril.

    I visited Flying W also as a kid! Growing up where I did in rural OK, cowboys weren’t very exciting to me since we got that all the time, but must have been fun for you “Easterners.”


  22. It’s just a little above (west and north of) Garden of the Gods (it’s been closed for last two days since obviously it’s so close); right now main thrust seems to be moving northward, it’s in the foothills above the Air Force stadium that’s visible from I-25. Pre-evac orders have reached a neighborhood about 2 miles from me, so I guess I won’t be doing any footnote checking today after all!


  23. When I lived within a stone’s throw of downtown, here, we had bears cross the street in front of our house. The divide between rural and urban isn’t always that deep. Especially now that the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources has stopped answering calls about bears on the loose in cities and refers all those to the local police or simply advises callers to stay inside or bang pots. *sigh*

    Some nasty fires out there: I will keep people in my thoughts. The problems of forest and wilderness ‘management’ are legion and, as you rightly note, very much tied to how we envision wilderness, wildlife and our national lifestyles. A former grad student is working on his dissertation on the history of wildlife and parks policy in the province: I need to sit down with him while he’s in town this summer and listen to what he can share on these topics.


  24. Wow, Paul–thanks for the link. Those photos are pretty terrifying.

    I have to note that there’s nowhere near the density of development in the foothills outside Fort Collins. But then, COS is a much bigger city than is FC, plus your city is just more jammed up in your foothills, which are more glamorous than ours up north.

    At least, they were more glamorous. I will be very interested to see and hear what happens to these mountain neighborhoods after the fire is put out. Rebuilding would seem like folly to me, but another trope (that goes along very well with the military metaphors described in Lloyd Burton’s editorial) of wildfire reportage are the avowals of homeowners to return and rebuild, even while the fire still rages. I have no idea if these folks ever do this, but it seems to be part of the martial ideology, mixed up with mountain love: “I won’t leave my land! I will rebuild!”

    And Janice: great story about the bears. Here in Colorado, it’s clear that the people who “meet” bears in their kitchens are clearly stupid or eager to have some human-bear interaction. It seems like there’s a pretty strong ethic up in the Colorado mountains that people need to bear-proof their homes, towns, and campsites, and those who don’t asked for whatever bear love they get.


  25. Ever-so-slowly fire management practices in Australia are starting to incorporate elements of traditional Aboriginal firestick farming.
    There are many well documented (from early journal extracts, colonial painting and Indigenous histories) that ‘the bush’ across vast swaths of Australia at time of colonization was open grasslands with isolated pockets of mature trees with few seedling trees near them. These are landscapes that took hundreds of years of controlled burns to create.
    Within twenty or so years many of these ‘parkland like’ were transformed into dense forests by the disruption/suppression of the old fire patterns. Now we have inferno wildfires that kill all before them.
    On a tangential note…Initially there were howls of protest from the worst hit communities when the recent massive Victorian fires forced the need for revised building codes (and so prevented rebuilding the most vulnerable building types) but after the delay to revise the codes, the rebuilt communities are a lot safer and I’ve not heard any recent community disquiet about improved safety standards.
    I was horrified when almost two years ago the same areas of Brisbane flooded as in the seventies. Again there was loss of lives as well as property. Government’s response? A tax levey to help rebuild the flooded infrastructure. Are we supposed to relive the tragedy every generation?


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