Obama's Fireman
Credit: Photograph by Elias Funez / Modesto Bee / Zumapress.com

That might not matter much if it weren't for the millions of homeowners who have literally placed themselves in the line of fire. San Bernardino is good example. Voelkelt stands at the edge of a friend's backyard, indicating with a sweep of his arm the vast maze of fog-kilted canyons snaking through the San Bernardino National Forest. The yard is on a property nestled in a community of homes at the top of a canyon; similar communities dot the crowns of the canyons all around us.

You have to admit: It's a view to die for. And then Voelkelt points out how close the many homeowners in this region have come to actually dying for it. There was the Old Fire of 2003, he says; then the Sawtooth Complex Fire of '06; the Grass Valley, Slide, and Butler 2 fires of '07; and more. "In military terms, what these fires do is encircle the community," he says. "Then they close in."

These homes are essentially plunked on top of a gigantic mound of matches baking all year long in the sun. A bolt of lightning, a discarded butt, a spark from a scraping muffler, and minutes later a tsunamic conflagration is racing up the canyon walls – fire is all about up – to the thoughtfully placed and lovingly furnished arrays of timber planks at the top. It may be paradise, but it's one spark removed from hell.

Welcome to life at the wildland-urban interface – or, as insiders call it, the WUI (pronounced wooey). There's nothing particularly special about the San Bernardinos when it comes to building homes where they're most likely to burn. About one-fifth of the U.S. population now lives in areas that are at significant risk, and the numbers are only accelerating.

These homeowners are drawn to the WUI for the views and the solitude, and to feel embedded in nature. The irony, says Miller, is that these folks tend to have a very, well, unnatural view of nature. "They want streets, water, and electricity," Miller says. "They don't see fire as part of that landscape, and they're shocked when it shows up. And they expect to be protected from it."

Native Americans knew better than to live in such areas. But in the years after World War II, a wave of 22 million people moved west. Many chose to settle in the forested canyons and mountains of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Colorado, and Arizona. "Wherever they went, people kept moving upslope, where it's more beautiful," says Miller. "They were moving into the fire zone." To make matters worse, the fire zone was becoming more and more fire prone as years of successful firefighting allowed the forest to become dense with fuel.

Residents in hill-, mountain-, and canyon-top WUIs are just asking for it, basically. But the government can hardly sit back and let them and their homes be incinerated by wildfires that everyone should have known were inevitable. Of course, that problem suggests a simple solution: Don't build there in the first place. It's the same strategy that is starting to gain traction in coastal flood areas, thanks to mushrooming flood-insurance costs that force potential homeowners to confront the consequences of living in a catastrophe-prone zone.

Can fire-insurance rate increases accomplish the same? Until recently, wildfire property-damage costs were barely a blip on the insurance industry's radar screen; the growing destruction is getting more attention now, says Cleaves. But, he adds, getting homeowners to accept more responsibility for the risk of living in a wildfire zone is still an uphill battle. "We worry that the Forest Service has become so good at saving homes that homeowners don't see any need to take care of themselves," he says. Zoning laws restricting the development of wildfire-prone areas would help, and encouraging such laws is folded into the Obama administration's new wildfire strategy.

At the very least, these homes and communities can easily be "fire-adapted." The steps are simple: Clear out brush, debris, and low branches around homes, put up metal roofs instead of wooden ones – most homes catch fire when embers land on them – and avoid wooden fences that can neatly conduct a fire from the outside of the property to the house.

In the San Bernardino Mountains, it's easy to see the difference such steps can make: Some homes stand unscathed from recent fires next to charred, empty lots. "The fire came right up to the edge of my property and stopped," says Arlend Dwyer, a homeowner in Cedar Glen who fire-adapted his property. He points over at an empty lot. "That guy over there wouldn't do any of it; now there's nothing left." Studies show that fire-adapted communities fared far better in Colorado's Waldo Canyon Fire, as well, and that money spent on fire-adapting projects pays for itself hundreds of times over.

Yet, incredibly, it's still a fight to get communities to embrace these relatively low-cost precautions. Michele Steinberg, wildland fire projects manager for the National Fire Protection Association, works to get at-risk communities on board. She can point to thousands of communities all over the U.S. that have made at least modest efforts – but that's only a documented 1.5 percent of 70,000 WUI communities in the country. "Some people call these red zones the stupid zones," Steinberg says.

Meanwhile, the rush to snuggle up against nature is only accelerating. A Colorado study based on 2010 U.S. census data found that about 17 percent of the state's population – almost a million people – lived in high-wildfire-risk areas. Of the 7,000 homes in the area evacuated for the state's 2013 Black Forest Fire, half weren't there a decade ago.

But even if some combination of policy and common sense started to nudge people away from the WUI, it's not necessarily clear where they could move that would leave them protected from the calamities of climate change. "Wildfire is just the bellwether for a whole set of climate-change disturbances, like floods, storms, and insects," Cleaves says. "It's the first hockey stick in a whole locker room of hockey sticks, and they're all tightly coupled. After you get the big wildfires, you know the others are right behind it." Every region of the country will be subject to one or more of these threats to life and home, he warns.

And perhaps that's the best that can be said about the inevitability of the coming incineration of much of America's wildlands, and of the communities nestled alongside them: It might be the least of our worries.