Fire ecologists say three factors have converged to create the wildfires Westerns residents face nearly every summer: Climate change, the build up of timber, and the rising number of people living in fire country.
These factors make it increasingly difficult for government to protect private property from future flames. So, many Northwest homeowners have decided to protect themselves rather than hope that fire agencies will one day fireproof the forest. From outside Boise, Guy Hand reports.
Carrie Wiss knocks on a neighbor's door here at Wilderness Ranch.
"Hi Linda; how are you?"
It's a community of nearly 300 homes perched on steep mountain slopes northeast of Boise. Wiss is the development's Firewise coordinator. It's a national non-profit that helps rural landowners fireproof their property.
Linda and Gordon Hinze have asked Wiss and another volunteer over on this bright fall day to help assess the fire risk to their home. Wiss begins at the doorstep.
Carrie Wiss: "So starting right here I usually look down at the ground and see that you don't have a jute doormat, which is a nice thing, because a jute doormat is something that will catch some embers and start to burn."
Calking around windows, putting metal screens over vents, all of these simple measures keep embers from finding a place to burn.
That's what Firewise is all about. And Wilderness Ranch was one of the first communities to join the program back in 2002. There are other Firewise communities in Oregon and Washington.
River Bluff Ranch, near Spokane, was built from the ground up as a Firewise community. In all of these places, Wiss says it's mostly the small, innocuous details — like that jute doormat — that wick the flames that ignite nightmares.
Carrie Wiss: "Your house is fuel and if you put your house into the chain of fuel, then you've got a problem."
Wiss says that a lot. Still, as the group walks around the Hinze's clean, well-maintained yard, she finds little to worry about.
Carrie Wiss: "This house has a metal roof which I think is a terrific thing. I think we only have one house left out here at Wilderness Ranch that has a wooden roof."
But as they circle to the west side of the property Wiss stops cold. The neighbor's yard is thick with closely packed ponderosa pine.
Gordon Hinze: "I've cut down what's on my property line like that one and one there. You know the neighbor enjoys his trees."
Carrie Wiss: "And that's something that we have a lot of in any community. There are people that, for a number of reasons, haven't got around to doing this yet. Either they truly don't believe in it, they think it's going to spoil the look of their house."
Or maybe they're old or disabled. And this is the challenge of successful community fireproofing. It takes everybody.
Firewise volunteer Mark Moser: "What a lot of people don't realize is that if that house goes it chains over to this house, this house goes, it chains over to another house, that house goes. It's a community thing. Firewise isn't just protecting one home and everything is going to be OK. Firewise is community responsibility."
But here, in regulatory-averse Idaho, mandatory codes are out of the question. Instead Carrie Wiss writes a monthy newsletter and holds annual events.
That's better than confronting the neighbor. She says with every fire — local or televised — a few more people come around. They realize they've got to protect themselves from fire now-a-days, by thinning trees, buying a new roof, or just replacing that flammable doormat.