Private landowners and public agencies do and should share responsibility for wildfire protection at wildland/urban interfaces.
Private homeowners living in wildfire-prone forest or rangeland should take personal responsibility for construction and maintaining buildings in a manner that minimizes risk. The cost of this should be born primarily if not exclusively by the individual landowner. On this few would disagree.
However, what should be done about individuals who build a log cabin with a cedar shake roof and an outdoor fireplace (with no spark arrestor) in the middle of a diseased grand fir thicket? Should the community make no effort to help him because his construction choices were stupid? Who bears the cost of increased risk of initiating a fire in such a setting? What if this poor individual compounds his troubles by trying to protect his house alone with a garden hose? Who is responsible for his life or helping him? Who is responsible for the trauma to the firefighting squad who leaves him alone and later hears he died? Answers are difficult.
On a larger ecosystem, level tree thinning and fuel management with controlled burns among other interventions have great potential to minimize the chance of the spread of wildfire to urban areas with enormous cost savings. Yet the cost and risk of these interventions are beyond the resources of most landowners. The cost of this should be born primarily if not exclusively by public agencies if landowners are willing to maintain improvements and manage their land in a responsible manner. On this I expect few would disagree.
However, what do we do about landowners desperate to liquidate their financial resources who over-harvest their property after a public agency financed tree thinning, leaving a fire-prone "dog hair" thicket of regeneration, selling it a few years later to an unsuspecting individual who plans to build a log cabin? What is to prevent individuals from “mining” the government and taxpayers? Answers are difficult.
Whatever is done, we need to maintain individual freedom (including the right to be stupid) and take care of taxpayer dollars wisely.
Most local governments have identified the wildland/urban interface around their towns. I suggest there should be strict building codes in these areas requiring, for example, metal roofs, a noncombustible exterior, such as cementitious siding, zones of defensible space around the building with no trees, etc. It would be nice if everyone just did what made sense for themselves and their neighbors, but I am afraid without an intervention it just won’t happen in many cases.
Additional but more expensive or exotic protections, such as roof sprinklers, water catchments and irrigated green areas, might be given tax deductions. My reading of the literature on this issue suggests appropriate construction techniques dramatically reduce and practically fireproof a building. It may be that given the likely rise in fire intensity and frequency in the West that will accompany climate change we should just stop letting people build in fire-prone forest.
How to handle existing houses in the WUI is more difficult. I would favor grandfathering them into a fire protection district but raising property taxes to reflect the additional cost to the community. It is un-American to abandon members of our community, even if they are acting recklessly.
Tax rates could be contingent on what interventions have been done to make the home less prone to igniting. The devil would be in the detail, of course, as rules and regulations have a way of going sideways. Every effort should be made to encourage landowners, financially and otherwise, to do the right thing by their community.
Cabins that are not year-round residences should be allowed to burn. They are wonderful (I just spent two years building one), but they are luxuries, not homes. No one should risk their life trying to save a luxury except for the idiot who spent two years building one in a fire-prone area.