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Burning down the house

As southern Californians sift through the charred debris of 2,000 homes destroyed by the wildfires and mourn the loss of seven lives, some have complained about the inadequacy of fire protection and suppression efforts there.  But few seem to acknowledge their own complicity in this recurring disaster by choosing to live in harm's way, in far-flung suburban and exurban homes built next to or sometimes even within forests.

story in The New York Times on Sunday pointed out that the number of homes within a mile of a fire in San Diego County has doubled within the last two decades - from 61,000 homes in 1990 to 125,000 this year, according to an analysis by the University of Wisconsin.

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With wildfires an annual hazard in the West, local and state authorities have taken steps to reduce dangers to residents by requiring new homes be built with fire-resistant materials and techniques. An Arizona State University professor, writing in the Outlook section of The Washington Post, argues that firefighting techniques need to adapt to the ever-growing incursion of people into what experts call the "wildland-urban interface."

Living in harm's way isn't just a western predilection, though.  The wildland-urban interface, where homes mingle with undeveloped wild areas, takes up just 9 percent of the land in the lower 48 United States, but 39 percent of all homes can be found there, according to an analysis by Wisconsin researcher Volker Radeloff and colleagues.  California has the highest number of homes in these areas, but eastern states like Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania also rank up there. Read more about it here.

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While tougher buliding codes, more clearing of trees and brush around homes and even "controlled burns" may reduce the risks of wildfires to residents, few, apparently, are willing to talk about reining in development in fire-prone areas.  A San Diego County planning official quoted in the Times said authorities were not interested in slowing growth, but in ensuring the safety of people in a wildland fire.

So expect more dramatic pictures of wildfires forcing people to flee their neighbhorhoods as flames lick at those backyard decks with great views of the nearby forest.

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