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Slow the land rush to fire zones

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KAI RYSSDAL: Allstate Insurance is still paying out for last fall’s California wildfires. The biggest home insurer in the country announced a 37 percent drop in quarterly profits, largely because of losses due to those fires.

Commentator and former Director of the National Park Service Roger Kennedy says, unless governments and taxpayers change their ways, we’ll be hearing the same story year after year.

ROGER KENNEDY: The land rush into fire danger continues, still subsidized by federal taxpayers. Construction crews continue to race against fire crews, and each time fire returns, brave young people are put at risk of their lives, rescuing homeowners encouraged to build and buy where fire will surely strike. It’s as if we kept sending rescue squads out into busy freeways to rescue baby carriages left there by people not aware of the danger.

Fire recurs, and each year after it does we spend an average of nearly $2 billion of our taxpayer money on everything from firefighting to infrastructure rebuilding, after having committed even more to create the incentives to build in harm’s way. Who’s to blame?

We make loans and grants to developers in dangerous places, pick up the tab for federal mortgage insurance on buildings set in fire traps, then pay for the roads into those fire traps and for much of their electric power and water. We also pay for most of the satellites that provide the pictures that tell reinsurers which locations are most likely to burn, but taxpayers don’t have access to that information.

This system is murderous, expensive and wrong. Now the firefighters are asking for a moral and taxpayers’ revolt before global warming and drying make matters worse.

Let’s cut financial assistance, and let each individual take what risk he or she understands, unsubsidized and properly warned, and while we’re at it, let’s stop building the roads to disaster, and end guaranteed mortgages on houses built in fire traps. They’re really subprime from a firefighter’s point of view. By letting the free market do its work without the huge subsidies from the federal treasury, we can slow the land rush to a manageable trickle.

KAI RYSSDAL: Roger Kennedy is former Director of the National Park Service. His book is called “Wildfire and Americans.”

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