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Wildfire and Americans is a passionate, deeply informed appeal for us to acknowledge that wildfire is not a fire problem but a people problem. There are no natural disasters, only people in disastrous circumstances. Many Americans are in the wrong places, channeled there by wrong policies. Roger G. Kennedy has pieced together the untold history of the Cold War–era policies that deliberately emptied America’s cities and subsidized the suburban and exurban encroachment into a dangerous landscape that is becoming increasingly precarious with global warming. Kennedy’s understanding of the United States’ history of transgressing nature’s limits, his grasp of how politicians and industries stand to gain by leaving the problem unsolved, his familiarity with the science of fire, and, finally, his faith-grounded conviction regarding our moral responsibility toward both our environment and our fellow human beings make Wildfire and Americans more than a history of policies gone terribly awry—it is also a plan of action to reverse more than fifty years of wrong-headed and misguided policy.
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Roger G. Kennedy is director emeritus of the National Museum of American History and former director of the National Park Service. He has written ten books and coedited Living on the Edge: Economic, Institutional and Management Perspectives on Wildfire Hazard in the Urban Interface.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Excerpted from Wildfire and Americans: How to Save Lives, Property, and Your Tax Dollars by Roger G. Kennedy. Copyright © 2006 by Roger G. Kennedy. Published in June 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
1. THE PLAN OF THE WORK
Los Alamos is a bomb factory set in a firetrap. It was put there by scientists adept at physics and chemistry but not universally wise. They could make nuclear weapons, and they could teach others how to deliver those weapons to their targets. They were not, however, good at everything their country asked of them, or at solving every problem about which some of them felt impelled to offer advice. Few of them, for example, were trained in the biological sciences or the dynamics of wildfire. Nevertheless, on their recommendation, landscapes were shaped and entirely new cities situated at Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington. Wildfire was not a problem addressed by their founding fathers.
Los Alamos lies on the Pajarito Plateau of New Mexico, above the Rio Grande Gorge. Eroded ochre slopes decline to the river on the south and east. To the north and west, “the Lab” backs onto steep forested mountainsides managed by the National Park Service and the United States Forest Service. It seems safe, and so it is, from a political or military threat. Not since the “Pueblo Revolt” of the seventeenth century has there been a military action against a central government in the region, and there was little resistance when the Hispanic villages of New Mexico were conquered by the United States Cavalry in the 1840s, and thereafter formally ceded by treaty. The scientists who founded Los Alamos did not worry about domestic insurrection anyway; they had other things on their minds—espionage and the range of missiles that might be launched from warships.
However, Los Alamos is not safe. Further consultation with the people of the pueblos, or with the fire managers of Bandelier National Monument or of the Forest Service would have yielded the information that the plateau had been burned by wildfire about every ten years on average since people first came there. The climate is dry. The woods are filled with trees oozing pitch that is a sort of gummy turpentine, awaiting the lightning that strikes the mesa hundreds of times each summer. Still in living memory is the large fire on Forest Service land that burned its way down to Los Alamos Canyon in 1954; the La Mesa Fire of 1977 broke out on Forest Service land amid the slash left by a lumbering operation, and though it spread into Los Alamos, it, too, was treated as a fluke. During the early 1990s, the Dome Fire reduced to charred sticks and cinders more than sixteen thousand acres in the National Forest seven miles from Los Alamos. “Had not the wind shifted on the Dome Fire, it would have entered upper Frijoles and probably Los Alamos. That wind shift saved the town.”1
Still, no serious effort was made to reduce the danger of wildfire in Los Alamos. Only a few fuel breaks were built and some trees thinned, until the laboratory administration of the mid-1990s began to step up the work and actually transferred funds to help the Forest Service with the reduction of fire load—fallen limbs, brush, and small, highly inflammable trees. This help was necessary. Congress, while always ready to put up more concrete bunkers, administration buildings, block-long laboratories, mysterious tubes and towers, and mile after mile of metal fencing, showed little interest in providing protection to the people of the laboratory or town against natural hazards the founders of the laboratory had failed to notice. Ribbon-cutting was more pictorial than brush-cutting. Science stopped at the laboratory door.
Nonetheless, some of the administrators living on the property did begin to take action in the 1990s, and because of their late, uncelebrated efforts, it is likely that the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 was less destructive than it might have been. Inside the town, life went on. Park Service and Forest Service employees, knowing the dangers at hand, went house to house to warn the inhabitants of the urgent need to remove the fire load in their yards. By that time, however, those inhabitants were accustomed to a garrisonlike situation in which it seemed reasonable to assume that if there were perils they would have been warned of them by their superiors. Only a few, heeding the warnings that came to them from outsiders, adopted measures that have subsequently become called “fire-wise principles.”
Next to the laboratory, after the 1977 fire, the National Park Service had begun cutting out brush and small trees by a series of small, deliberate controlled burns. Much of the Bandelier National Monument was covered by such burns or by the big recurring natural burns. On Sunday, May 7, 2000, one of the last of these controlled or “prescriptive” fires was set. Then came a series of misfortunes, and a hundred-foot wave of scarlet fire rushed toward Los Alamos, disregarding fencing or no trespassing signs. All through several nights, a ferocious blaze illuminated those proud concrete bunkers, administration buildings, block-long laboratories, tubes, and towers.
By the evening of the tenth, five hundred firefighters were at risk. When the winds were not too powerful, and there was daylight to penetrate the smoke, seven helicopters and five air tankers were in use. By the time the fire burned itself out, eighteen thousand acres had burned, including 235 houses in Los Alamos. Thousands of people had been evacuated.
Those who had located the laboratory and town at Los Alamos had been thinking politically, not environmentally. They were worried about human systems, not natural systems. It was characteristic of a kind of nature-blindness that afflicted national policies at the time, not only in placing defense installations but also in channeling migration and altering urban life across the entire nation. During the Cold War decades, success in developing atomic bombs gave science, even nature-blind science, great prestige. Experts in urban destruction were assumed to be experts in urban safety. Though for a time capable of perceiving only one set of dangers—those likely to come from political enemies—they provided arguments useful to people whose motives were not primarily patriotic but pecuniary. A dispersion-industrial complex exploited arguments to disperse targets in order to secure government financing. This led to the location of many millions of people in places dangerous for other reasons. Much unintended harm was done to the health of American cities and of the American countryside.
The story of urban dispersion in the United States has been told from many perspectives, and in a large literature well worth reading. I do not attempt to do more in these pages than give emphasis to some sets of events that I believe to have been insufficiently apprehended. I do so not for the purpose of finding fault—indeed, I would not have written this book at all if I were not offended by fault-finding as a distraction from correction. It is correction that I seek, encouraged by the conviction that much of what is lamentable in these pages is also remediable. The weakening of the old industrial cities of America was done on purpose. Populations were relocated purposefully into places imperiled by natural forces such as fire. Cities were gutted and their inhabitants displaced by the deliberate use of federal subsidies and governmental planning.
But deliberate actions can often be deliberately reversed. Not always, of course, for there are irreversible consequences. Yet because there was nothing mysterious in the devices used to weaken old ways of life among humans in cities and among other living creatures in remote valleys and watersheds, there need be nothing mysterious in the ways in which desirable and surviving conditions can be strengthened.
Citizens can rise up in a taxpayers’ revolt to stop subsidizing a land rush into fire danger. To assist them, some facts must be fished out of some crannies and locked files and pasted onto placards. The most compelling of those facts have to do with how and why the subsidies developed—and how they work today.
I hope to help in that process. It seems to me that I should begin with a candid statement of the direction from which my effort to convince is offered: I was an Eisenhower Republican, precinct chairman, ward chairman, district chairman, winner of a congressional primary election, and loser of the general election (to Eugene McCarthy). I was assistant successively to three cabinet officers in the Eisenhower Administration, and served on presidential commissions or special assistancies for Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Carter, and Bush the First, before being appointed by the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to be the first director of the National Museum of American History, and then by President Clinton to be director of the National Park Service, an office I occupied from 1993 through 1997.
As a reporter for NBC and as the producer or presenter of documentaries based in Washington for PBS, the BBC, and the Discovery Channel, I have had the opportunity to observe how the federal government works. I have written eleven books about American history and many prefaces, and edited the twelve-volume Guide to Historic America for the Smithsonian Institution and also a reissue of a WPA guide. I’ve been trying to understand government for a long time.
I cannot pretend that this book arose from cool, detached, scholarly inquisitiveness. It didn’t. It arose from outrage. In May 2000, I witnessed an orgy of scapegoating and misinformation after the great fire on the Pajarito Plateau burst into flame in what has come to be known as the Cerro Grande Fire, from Bandelier National Monument into Los Alamos Nati...
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