The "Stupid Zone"

An essay by Ed Quillen in the High Country News has two themes. One is to combine the federal land management agencies into one–a concept that has been tossed around for decades.

The other is to designate “Stupid Zones”. Here is an excerpt from the article:

A Stupid Zone is an area that is stupid to build in, on account of predictable dangers — avalanches, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, floods, etc. While zoning is primarily a local responsibility, the federal government should quit encouraging construction in Stupid Zones.

As it is, national flood insurance is subsidized by the federal government, so a property owner can be reimbursed for his folly in building next to a river known to overflow its banks — a risk no private insurer would take. There are proposals to expand this to cover coastal erosion — a subsidy for millionaires who want to build palaces on beachfront property.

Here in the Interior West, nearly half the U.S. Forest Service budget already goes to firefighting, and one reason, according to the agency, is the “expansion of residences in the wildland urban interface.” It’s one thing if a wildfire burns some beetle-killed lodgepole in the middle of nowhere; cut a firebreak and let it burn itself out.

But it’s quite another if it threatens a 4,000-square-foot amenity-laden mountain getaway. Then the fire must be suppressed at whatever cost — sometimes the lives of the firefighters. The blue-collar kids on the fire crews end up being sacrificed to protect the estates of the upper crust.

Why not let the private sector do this kind of work? In the late summer of 2007, wildfire threatened mansions along the Big Wood River in Idaho near the resort towns of Sun Valley, Hailey and Ketchum. These folks had good (and expensive, at about $10,000 a year) fire insurance. Their carrier sent private crews in to pump flame retardant over their mansions.

If people can afford to build in Stupid Zones, let them. But let them cover their own risks. Keep the public’s firefighting dollars for protecting the public’s property.

Thanks, Dick, for the tip.