Land Use

Fires Spark Debate Over Right To Settle in Western Forests

More D.C. control freakery

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Nationwide, the six worst fire seasons since 1960 have burned in the past 13 years. That includes 2012, when 9.2 million acres went up in flames. The worst year was 2006, when 9.8 million acres burned.

Western state lawmakers have called on the federal government for more help and criticized its management of public lands, where large fires often start and then spread to private and state lands. That's no small issue in a region dominated by federally owned lands, which cover about 70 percent of Arizona and virtually all of Nevada, for example. The U.S. Forest Service labels about 65 million acres of its land "high or very high risk of catastrophic wildfires."

At the same time, these lawmakers are pondering how to use their own scarce resources. While some conditions, including hotter, drier weather, are beyond their control, states and localities can dictate where people live.

Whether craving rugged terrain or a semblance of solitude, westerners are increasingly settling in communities abutting wilderness that make up what's called the wildland urban interface, or WUI. The population shift has brought in new fire threats and put more people and property in harm's way, while also making firefighting more complicated and expensive.