Smokey the Bear is needed in urban areas like Chicago

Smokey the Bear is present on billboards in Chicago – and he is needed. According to the Chicago Tribune several days ago:

Helene Cleveland, fire prevention program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said wildfires are more common in the Chicago area than people think…

Tom Wilson, forest protection program manager for Illinois, said a study by the Chicago Wilderness organization noted more than 1,500 wildfires from January 2005 to March 2011 in the six-county Chicago area.

There are plenty of houses adjacent to forests and grassland areas that have potential to catch fire, Wilson said.

Such a message might seem out of place in Chicago but there are plenty of urban areas that are more visibly affected by wildfires more frequently: Los Angeles and other cities in the American Southwest or the fires currently outside of Sydney, Australia. Chicago might not see fires like this but there is still plenty of open land near the metropolitan area or within it as part of forest preserves and other entities.

These Smokey the Bear billboards are also a reminder of the relationship between cities and nature. The average Chicago street  might appear to have little nature beyond a few trees and a few small animals. Yet, cities can’t quite get away completely from nature, whether it is dealing with wildfires, water and flooding issues, responding to natural disasters, or the limited exposure children have to the natural world in books.

McMansions being built in the wildland urban interface

Here is an argument that more McMansions are being built in the wildland urban interface and this is leading to problems with forest fires:

But in go-go America, these scientific truisms were no match for McMansion fantasies. As coastal folk headed to the Rocky Mountain frontier with visions of big-but-inexpensive castles far away from the inner city, the term “zoning” became an even more despised epithet than it already had been in cowboy country.

Rangeland and foothill frontiers subsequently became expansive low-density subdivisions, and carbon-belching SUVs chugged onto new roads being built farther and farther away from the urban core. That is, farther and farther into what the federal government calls the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and what fire experts call the dangerous “red zone.”

The numbers are stark: According to The Denver Post, between 1990 and 2000, 40 percent of all homes built in the nation were built in the WUI — and “a Colorado State University analysis expects a 300 percent increase in WUI acreage in the next couple decades.”

In the last two decades in fire-scorched Colorado alone, I-News Network reports that “a quarter million people have moved into red zones,” meaning that today “one of every four Colorado homes is in a red zone.”

I had never heard of the wildland urban interface before. To put it in other terms, it sounds like many new homes are being built in exurban areas, the leading edges of metropolitan areas. There are advantages and disadvantages to this: the land is likely quite cheaper and people can have bigger pieces of property and newer homes. But, there are negative consequences such as having to drive further to get places and the environmental impact.

Here is more information on the wildland urban interface in Colorado from Colorado State University. And here is an interesting opinion piece in the Denver Post about how to improve the narratives about WUI fires.

Wildfires threaten the vanity of McMansions?

One journalist suggests it takes events like wildfires to remind us of the frailty of McMansions:

Nature makes a mockery of our vanity. We live in flood and fire zones, nurture stately oaks and take shade under pines holding the best air of the Rocky Mountains. We plant villas next to sandstone spires called the Garden of the Gods, and McMansions in Virginia stocked with people who have the world at their fingertips.

Then, with a clap, a boom and a roar, fire marches through a subdivision on a conveyance of 60 mile an hour winds. A platoon of thunderstorms so loaded with energy it has its own category name — derecho — cuts a swath from east of Chicago to the Atlantic.

The pines flame and hiss, shooting sparks on the house next door, a fortress no more. The oaks tumble and crush roofs. Almost 350 homes burn to the ground, and nearly 5 million people lose all electricity in sweltering heat. Lobbyists and congressmen curse at mute cellphones and sweat through their seersucker. The powerful are powerless.

No home can stand up against fires like that. I wonder if anyone is developing a “wildfire proof home”?

When a devastating wildfire leads to the construction of McMansions

Here is brief mention of a situation when McMansions were built after a devastating wildfire:

Although dwarfed by other natural disasters, and probably forgotten by people without Bay Area connections, the Oakland Hills Fire 20 years ago killed 25 (many of them trapped in their cars, trying to escape), injured 150 and burned down more than 3,000 homes and 450 apartments and condos. The property damage has been estimated at $1.7 billion—the same (in today’s dollars) as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Overnight, a hillside brush fire was transformed into a major conflagration by a sudden “Diablo wind” that rose within minutes to 70 miles per hour and 100 feet high. Defying more than a thousand firefighters from all over the state, the winds (including flame-generated whirlwinds) hurled fire, flint and embers in a dozen different directions. At their peak, the flames were exploding 10 houses a minute—600 in the first hour alone. Sparks leapt over an eight-lane freeway. In two days, two square miles of wood-framed houses among the trees, built on steep slopes and narrow, winding roads (to capture the great views of San Francisco), had been reduced to a no-man’s-land of white ash and crumbled debris, pierced by dark spikes of leafless tree trunks among surviving stone steps and totemic chimney towers.

It is this ghostly, lifeless afterworld that Mr. Misrach captured by setting up his view camera along the empty streets of this miniature version of Dresden or Hiroshima a week or so after the fire. There are no people in his pictures; no cars except burned-out hulks with melted windows.

The first images I focused on were the remains of the burned trees. In most cases, only the hard, black, sharp centers of their trunks remained. Mr. Misrach found many ways of making these spiky shapes eloquent and expressive…

In the years since the fire, most of the empty lots have been filled with new houses, even if most of the residents from 1991 have left. Many of the rebuilders used their settlements to build new McMansions two or three times the size of the houses that were lost. The trees around them will take another 50 years to grow back. The handsome old houses of the Oakland hills are not what they were. But Mr. Misrach has captured the precise moment when one world ended and another began.

This is a unique situation compared to the typical complaints about McMansions that are built within an established neighborhood. In this case, a fire wiped out the existing neighborhood, wiping the slate clean. I would guess that the homes that were built after the fire would have been difficult, perhaps even impossible, to build before the fire. Additionally, this wasn’t just valuable land but also land on the sides of hills that had commanding views but could also probably be seen from a distance as well.

I imagine there could be a very interesting story to tell about these new homes and how the new neighborhood came to be.

Why some protesters set themselves on fire

There are a number of ways an individual can try to rally people to a particular cause. The New York Times suggests that one recent technique, seen most recently in Tunisia, is to set oneself on fire. But why people do this or how they get to this point is unclear:

It is often impossible to be sure what really motivates those who burn themselves to death. There is debate, for instance, about how Thich Quang Duc viewed his self-immolation in 1963, a protest that was related to the South Vietnamese government’s treatment of Buddhist monks and may have been at least partly religious in nature. In other cases, politics may be a cover for personal despair or rage against a loved one.

Whatever the motive, suicide sometimes spreads like a disease, especially when heavily covered in the media. David P. Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at of San Diego, published a 1974 study documenting spikes in the number of suicides after well-publicized cases. He called it “the Werther effect,” after the rash of suicides that followed the 1774 publication of “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe whose romantic hero kills himself.

“One thing is strongly suggested by the academic studies: People are more likely to copy suicides if they see that they have results, or get wide attention,” Dr. Phillips said.

Tunisia has provided grim evidence for that. And Mr. Bouazizi may yet provoke more fiery deaths across the Middle East if the revolution he helped spark is seen as successful.

Someone must have some data across countries and/or over time that might shed some light on patterns among cases of self-immolation.

I noticed that the examples in this article are primarily from non-Western nations. Is there a history of this in the West? How would society respond if someone in Western Europe or the United States did this?

More financial problems in Chicago suburbs: underfunded police and fire pensions

If the federal government is short on money and so is the state of Illinois, then financial problems were eventually going to trickle down to individual communities, even those who would usually be considered wealthy. The Chicago Tribune details how many suburban municipalities have fallen behind in funding police and fire pensions:

Of the 300-plus pension funds across the region, only about 20 are rated by the state as fully funded…

The flaws and excesses were long masked by a strong economy, when big investment returns pushed average funding levels to nearly 80 percent a decade ago — which many experts consider to be healthy. The latest figures from 2009 show suburban public-safety pension funds, on average, have just 52 percent of the assets needed to be fully funded.

Though the true cost will vary from place to place, the unpaid tab averages nearly $2,700 for every suburban household. A strong economy could boost investment returns and lessen the liability, but experts say the financial sins of the past are too great for pension systems to merely invest their way out of them.

As lawmakers consider reforms, town leaders and unions point fingers. Unions complain towns haven’t saved enough and lawmakers failed to force them. Suburban leaders complain lawmakers required them to offer lucrative benefits without the cash to pay for them. The one thing they agree on: The recession made the problems far worse…

The state doesn’t compile figures of how many towns have done that, with such findings usually buried in individual fund audits. The Tribune reviewed every audit the state would provide — 153 of them in metro Chicago — and found regulators cited a third of their taxing districts for not providing enough cash to their pension funds.

A couple of things stand out to me about this story:

1. One issue appears to be that of fragmented suburban government. Illinois, specifically the Chicago region, is well-known for its many taxing districts and municipalities. If each community, big or small, was to provide a pension fund, there were bound to be problems when some of these communities cannot meet their obligations.

2. Residents are not going to be happy about this. There are a couple of places they might direct their anger: toward local officials who didn’t properly fund these pensions or toward police or fire unions (a common issue in more conservative locations). Residents are also likely to be unhappy if fire and police personnel, people who many citizens feel keep their communities livable and safe, are let go.

3. How would local communities explain their actions regarding funding pensions? Can they or local officials be held responsible, outside of voting against them?