Build in the wrong place and you’re on your own 

Ignorance is no defence in the court of natural law


High Country News

Recent news stories lament the "disaster" of mudslides in Los Angeles caused by heavy rainfall on steep slopes where wildfires have burned off trees and shrubs. "Let the buyer beware," the old saying goes; but somehow, the buyers always say, "We didn't know."

Ignoring logic, developers bulldoze fragile soil, remove rock and create flotillas of houses on hills covered with mesquite and other brush rich in flammable resins, all guaranteed to be set on fire by lightning or arsonists. Every time the slopes burn, every time the houses slide, the rest of the nation holds its breath and watches dramatic videos of frightened people evacuating. Firefighters risk their lives to save people who choose to ignore evacuation orders. The same thing will happen again next time.

Yet none of this uproar, expense and suffering is necessary; it's a consequence of ignoring natural law. The causes are clear and the effects predictable, and they're expected to get much worse as climate change accelerates.

John McPhee's 2000 book, The Control of Nature , summarizes how Los Angeles got into this mess and predicts what will happen next. (The book also describes the likely consequences to New Orleans of the Corps of Engineers' playing with the Atchafalaya River.)

How often have you seen this scenario? The TV camera slow-w-wly pans over a devastated landscape while a solemn voice describes the latest tragedy. The camera focuses on a disheveled man standing in front of wreckage. He's lost his dog and his pickup truck and his family members are distraught. But when that microphone appears, he grins pluckily and says, "We'll rebuild."

"There oughta be a law," say some of the voters who pay for these foolish choices. In fact, there already is: natural law. And as Ann Zwinger wrote in Credo: Shaped By Wind and Water, "Ignorance is no defense in the court of natural law."

A 2008 study by Stanford University scientists demonstrated that humans have learned how to ignore cause and effect because our culture aids and abets them in doing so. Unfortunately, says Deborah S. Rogers, who participated in the study, people have learned how to avoid natural selection in the short term. But ignorance is unsustainable.

In short, we've rewarded people for being uninformed by providing rescue from Mother Nature. Hike up a mountain without adequate knowledge or gear? No problem; volunteers from Search and Rescue will save you. Lost in the desert? Just dial 9-1-1.

It's past time to start obeying a law that's been on the books literally forever. You say you want to build your mansion among dense pine trees on the side of a mountain? Use fireproof materials, thin the trees, and bulldoze escape routes. Good luck: You're on your own.

A few years ago, fire threatened a subdivision in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The subdivision had only one narrow access road. Two firefighters tried to save a house as the woods blew up and got trapped on the porch when the fire crowned. A helicopter-load of slurry saved both the men and the house. But the homeowner tried to sue; he wanted the fire department to pay for cleaning up the pink slurry.

A team of citizens - I was a member - was formed to plan how to avoid such scenarios in the future. Firefighters offered to educate subdivision dwellers and suggest tree-thinning and more escape routes. We decided that the driveways of homeowners who didn't comply would be marked, and no attempt would be made to save those houses. Judging by recent Western fires, however, not all fire departments have followed our lead.

The attempt to repeal natural laws is expensive. We reward people who make ignorant choices when we rescue them from the consequences of their actions. But natural selection is still in force, and the more we reward ignorance, the more of it we get.

You want your desert house to have a lawn? Sorry. Desert living requires sand, rock and cactus, and no swimming pool. Water is too precious to waste on self-delusion. You want a lawn? Move to where grass grows naturally.

You want to build in the trees? Stock your own firefighting tools. You've built on a flood plain? Buy a raft and water wings. Please don't call on the public for help - and don't count on a bailout from an insurance company or the federal government.


Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She writes in Hermosa, South Dakota.




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