USA: What the Dutch can teach us about wildfires

Source(s): New York Times, the

By Crystal Kolden


California is already one of the most expensive states in the country because of a housing shortage, and restricting growth in fire-prone areas — which includes most of the state — will only exacerbate that shortage, raise prices and further marginalize the most vulnerable populations. Many residents of Paradise, the town at the center of the Camp Fire, lived there specifically because they had been priced out of nearby cities.

Instead, we should take a cue from the Dutch. Much of the Netherlands sits below sea level and is therefore prone to flooding, but the Dutch can’t exactly move en masse next door to Germany. So they have learned over the centuries that the solution is to stop fighting the sea, and build their cities and towns to maximize saving lives through smarter planning and infrastructure. We could do the same with wildfire.


In California, some communities aggressively prepare residents for the eventuality of wildfire. Montecito, a community east of Santa Barbara, saw the need to address wildfire risk following the 1990 Painted Cave Fire nearby, which killed one person and consumed 427 homes. The Montecito Fire Protection District works with residents to reduce vegetative fuels along roadsides, create “fuel breaks” — essentially areas where native shrubs have been thinned or removed — at strategic locations on private property, and harden homes against embers by putting screens over vents and replacing siding and roofs with less flammable materials.


I was part of a team that reviewed how Montecito’s preparation paid off, and I saw how well the multipronged approach had worked. Yes, firefighters still had to protect homes. But they were able to do so safely, and many homes withstood the flames without any firefighter support. A lot of things went right, and there is no question that the changes Montecito made over many years contributed to the outcome. As a former wildland firefighter, what I saw in Montecito was a community that prioritized life safety and made sure firefighters could do their jobs safely and effectively, and it made all the difference.


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