We’re all fiddling while Rome burns

Here it is, another three weeks before we get to Memorial Day, and already fire sirens are wailing all across the west. Blazes in Arizona and New Mexico have started pushing smoke into Colorado and Utah, reminiscent of last year’s West Coast fires that cast a pall over the eastern seaboard. Fire restrictions and bans are being ramped up throughout the Mountain West, affecting not only campfires but cigarette smoking and the discharging of firearms. The country’s largest reservoirs have been drawn down so far that decades-old corpses are emerging from the depths.

The causes of all this are well known. In the Sierra Nevada, the first three months of this year have been the driest in California’s recorded history, resulting in a snowpack that currently stands at only 35% of the average. One consequence: the state’s wildfires this year to date already have burned 35% more acreage than they did last year. In Colorado, meanwhile, the below-average snowfall of this past winter is raising fears among state officials that they’re heading into the worst wildfire year in state history. As reported by the Denver Post, for example, the snowpack in the San Juan Mountains is a scant two inches, or less than 25% of what it should be, and is melting at a “ridiculous” rate.

The “facts” are unmistakable, but as the Covid pandemic demonstrated (and unfortunately continues to underscore), there are people for whom facts can be terribly inconvenient. Calls to change behavior for the greater good–to do something that will protect the lives and well-being of others, such as wearing a face mask or refraining from watering a lawn–are resisted at best, attacked as government oppression at worst. All sorts of spurious arguments and fantastical rationalizations get spun out, but rarely is there any acknowledgment that something must be done, much less what that something might be.

What brings this to mind most vividly is yesterday’s decision by Colorado’s Democratic legislators to abandon their attempt to address the vulnerability of homes built in wildfire-prone areas, such as the thousand homes in Boulder County that were torched last December. The forsaken proposal would have created a 17-member state board charged with adopting strict statewide building standards for the wildlife-urban interface by 2024, but was immediately attacked for its top-down approach. With more than 200 other bills pending and the legislative session supposedly ending today, Senate Republicans threatened to stall the entire process if the bill didn’t get yanked, forcing the Democrats to capitulate.

The Republicans, it should be mentioned, did not have a substitute proposal. That would have required acknowledging that a problem exists, and that the role of government is to deal with problems that threaten public welfare.

Colorado thus remains one of only eight states in the country without a minimum wildfire mitigation building code, even though its four largest and most destructive fires all occurred within the past two years. Moreover, the state’s lack of such a building code costs it big points when bidding for FEMA grant money, which flows more readily to states with a more pro-active approach to fire prevention. But, hey, how you can put a price tag on independence from the yoke of big government?

In southern California, meanwhile, an estimated 70% to 80% of urban water use is devoted to landscaping–in a state where agricultural fields are being left fallow because there isn’t enough water. But when water district officials impose restrictions, such as a demand that water use be reduced to 80 gallons per day per capita, public pushback has been immediate and vehement. Despite water bills of more than a thousand dollars a month, affluent homeowners who have spent as much as half-a-million dollars on landscaping are defying both regulatory pressures and common sense.

“A lot of people out here, they just feel kind of entitled,” Thomas Anderson, a security guard for entertainers, told The Washington Post earlier this week. “So they be like, ‘We got the money we’ll just pay whatever it is. Whatever the penalties is, so what? We’ll just write it off.’ They’re just going to suck up all the water anyway.”

Maybe all the numbers and statistics are too abstract for some people to absorb, so here’s one final sobering fact to drive reality home: as the fires in northern New Mexico continue to rage, various news sources are reporting that the moisture content of some of the timber they’re consuming is less than is found in kiln-dried lumber.

And yes, these are all things to think about if you’re camping, and especially if you’re boondocking.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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