Republicans vs. Reality

by Rebecca Schmitz

The furor over Rep. John Sinrud’s “Why not just let them burn?” comment shows what happens when Republicans get into a head-on collision with reality. They constantly have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, this member of the party of private property rights, less government spending, and self-reliance has a point: if people are going to build homes in the wildland-urban interface, they have to accept the inevitable. Their house might be destroyed by wildfire and, according to Sinrud, it’s up to homeowners to buck up, deal with the loss, and learn from their mistake by building somewhere else in future. It’s not unlike federal assistance for people who continually rebuild their homes in Tornado Alley or the Mississippi River floodplain; at what point do we as a society stop subsidizing bad decision-making skills? On the other hand, there’s reality. People want that assistance, and rightly so. When push comes to shove and a fire is just over the ridge, few Republican homeowners in its path stand up and say “Hey! Our state and national budget can’t support these firefighters! Let it burn!”

There’s a reason why President Bush never vetoed a single budget-busting bill while the Republicans were in power in Congress: he knows we the people want earmarks, pork barrel projects, and, yes, firefighters to arrive at that log home located in a thick grove of lodgepole there at the top of Mill Creek. Alaskan Republican Representative Don Young was able to include the infamous Bridge to Nowhere in the 2005 transportation bill without having a crisis of conscience because his constituents wanted it, despite his party’s philosophical commitment to ending government waste. Did anyone read the Missoulian this morning? There’s an article in the Montana section listing all the projects in this state that will receive federal funds this year, thanks to the money Baucus, Tester, and Rehberg have brought back home to us. Are Missoula Republicans going to stand up and say, “No thanks, we don’t want any cash going to the Missoula Food Bank, the University of Montana, St. Patrick Hospital, Community Medical Center, Missoula Area Youth Hockey Association, and the Missoula International Airport because our budget can’t support these projects!” Of course not. Reality will always trump party philosophy. Representative Sinrud might talk tough now, but he knows “letting it burn” means only one thing: less votes at election time.

  1. noodly appendage

    I’ve read George Wuerthner say the same thing. I was amazed John Sinrud said it.

    I doubt George votes Republican very often, to understate it mildly.

    If Representative Sinrud knows his statement about letting it burn cost him votes, but he said it anyway, bravo. I like his candor.

  2. noodly appendage

    From New West on line newspaper:

    “Second, nearly all the fire fighting effort is directed towards protecting homes that are out in the middle of nowhere. I.e. sprawl. Should we be risking fire fighters’ lives to save some person’s poorly located home? We need to zone against building in the “fire plain” just like we zone against building in the flood plain. Those who choose to build outside of towns are on their own–taxpayers shouldn’t be paying our dollars to save their homes because of their poor choices. ”

    George Wuerthner
    Eugene and Livingston Montana
    The writer is author of Wildfire–A Century of Failed Forest Policy

  3. I see a large part of the problem the State’s own laws concerning development and subdivision.

    MtDEQ allows one well per one acre of land. Subdivision can be avoided with new lots no smaller than 160 acres.

    A law proposed in the most recent legislature wanted to make the minimum well requirement 320 acres. It failed.

    If the State is going to promote subdivision of land pell-mell across the state, without regards to the urban interface, and if they’re own laws are going to allow one-acre lots anywhere, we are going to have costly fires.

    Local governments can’t control themselves. If the State fails to step in and control what the locals won’t, they shouldn’t complain about the cost to the taxpayer. The State is, defacto, approving of sprawl.

  4. I agree with Sinrud and Wuerthner to a certain extent. However, I don’t think Sinrud can logically support private property rights (such as developing land in unsafe areas) and not tax the property owners for the services needed to protect that land from fire, flood, hurricanes, or whatever natural disaster occurs in that geographical area. Someone’s gotta pay for that protection. Republicans don’t want to be the party of “tax and spend”, but they’re still spending all the same because people demand those services.

  5. There you go Rebecca.

    Same with development and subdivision rights – they can’t be pro-development industry and then sit and ignore the reality of what they create.

  6. You two are assuming that logic plays even a small part of what drives politics…. No, Sinrud doesn’t see the connection between the two and probably never will. Nor will any other elected official that caters to the Developers and Individuals with the money to buy those large “ranchs”. They are too worried about being able to get thier support at election time.

    I don’t know what the answer is (other than I have an issue with the idea that we shouldn’t be concerned about people’s houses and livelyhood – read livestock etc). It is easy to sit in your comfortable home nestled in amounst the other homes in a city and write “let them burn” and quite another to be someone who owns a home in a fire area like Seeley Swan, the Wisdom area, or the Bitterrroot Valley. Seeing the damage done by the big fires down here, I still think that structure protection and the efforts that were made to save ranches down here were important.

  7. noodly appendage

    George Wuerthner has an editorial bemoaning the dwellings outsite of town, in today’s Chronicle, moorcat.

    John Sinrud’s comment is no different than George’s. The timing of his comment was no different. Yet in the interest of partisan hacking, we’ve got this little self generating discussion about John’s comment. It’s certainly only a furor if four democrat party blogs in the whole internet are a furor.

    The thing is, moorcat, farms and ranches today many times are little more than trophy ranches for the extremely rich: Turner, Kroenke, Letterman, et al. Do we have a moral imperative to spend taxpayer dollars to keep Ted Turner’s ranch from burning?

    I’d say we do. George, and John, and the rest, are wrong. We’ve always had structures in danger, now there are more of them, true, but why is the ones who got here yesterday or who have money to buy from those who got here yesterday, have such a higher claim than those who got here today?

  8. A quick Google search brought up nine Democratic party blogs bringing up Sinrud’s remarks. I say furor, you say pfft. So there.

    I’m not sure which way you’re arguing, Noodly. Do we or don’t we let Ted Turner’s ranch go up in flames?

  9. I am not sure either, but my original statement is still true – I feel we have a moral and legal imperative to protect property as long as those property owners pay taxes. One of the things they pay taxes for is fire protection.

    I find George and John Sinrud’s comments to be somewhat insulting and as long as John is in Government, he should know better.

    I really don’t care if Ted Turner’s ranch is a “trophy” ranch (in fact, it isn’t. It is a hard working ranch showing a profit. Ted simply doesn’t work it…). He deserves the same protection that any other home owner deserves. In fact, given the amount of money he pays in taxes, the argument could be made that he deserves MORE as he pays more for it..

  10. Uh oh. I’m not sure that would be a very popular argument with a lot of Montanans, Moorcat. In fact, I can see the peasants with torches and pitchforks in hand walking through the fancy log entrance gate.

  11. And if they do, I can see Mr. Turner (and the many people who actually work his ranch) using the accepted Montana answer to that kind of thing. You know, the one that involves small peices of lead moving at high speed…

    I really don’t care how unpopular the idea is. Mr. Turner – regardless of what you think of him personally – pays a huge amount of taxes, does some rather nice things all around the state and has just as much right to protection and anyone else. It is acedemic that he is one of the richest SOBs in the Country.

    Fair is Fair. If you want to stop protecting him, stop making him pay taxes…

  12. Really, I’m not one of those Montanans who have made Ted my personal bête noire. I’m just saying that your earlier suggestion–those who pay more in taxes deserve more in services–wouldn’t fly very far before someone pulled out a .22.

  13. The comment was made suto in jest but the idea behind it remains… As long as we ask these people to pay taxes (and Ted Turner pays a LOT of taxes), they deserve the benefits that those taxes pay for. You don’t just provide those services to those it is convienent to give them to. John Sinrud has forgotten that but I have never really given him a lot of credit when it comes to cognitive thought.


  14. noodly appendage

    NOpe we don’t let Turner’s ranch go up in flames, or the mcmansions, or the auld sod of the fifth generation settler family.

  15. noodly appendage

    But I’d also say that John isn’t saying anything many a democrat wouldn’t say.

    And four, nine, all the same side of the aisle. Somewhat hypocritically, I”d say. I looked at the replies at Kos and there were plenty of let it burn type comments.

  16. That’s the great thing about being Democratic. To paraphrase Will Rogers, we’re a completely unorganized party.

  17. Once again, this isn’t a partisan issue (regardless of how many want to make it one). This is an issue of what is right, legal and moral. Neither party has a monopoly on those things…

  18. Foil2006

    All of you are missing the essential point: Fighting forest fires is a huge boondoggle. It is merely another government make-work program for Indians, college students, contractors, and bureaucrats looking for lifetime employment. Forest fire suppression efforts are essentially a government payment transfer system disguised as a public service.

    Once a forest fire reaches a certain size, it is impossible to put it out by any human effort. This fact is well understood by all fire managers but is completely unknown to politicians and the general public. Indeed, the people who vote more tax dollars for fighting forest fires, and the people who pay those tax dollars, are all operating under the mistaken belief that every forest fire can be extinguished. In their minds, it is just a matter of throwing enough men and equipment into the battle, which of course actually means throwing money into the flames. Such is not the case, however, with large forest fires, nearly all of which are ultimately snuffed out by Mother Nature.

    The exact breakpoint or threshold where a forest fire becomes unstoppable by any human means differs for every blaze, because so many variables come into play, such as fuel loads, weather, terrain, and so forth. But a good rule of thumb is the total fire perimeter, i.e., the distance in miles needed to fully “contain” the fire. For example, if a hypothetical forest fire burned in a perfect square that enclosed 16,000 acres, it would have a perimeter of 20 miles. Assuming typical forest terrain in Montana, such a perimeter would not represent an unusual challenge to crews working on the ground. But increase the fire size to 160,000 acres, and the perimeter becomes unmanageable by the usual number of ground crews available. Their number would have to be vastly supplemented by volunteers or troops, all to little effect, because none of them are very good at fire fighting.

    Thus, only relatively small fires can be contained by costly fire-fighting efforts. When such small fires grow into large fires, or are allowed to grow, they quickly become unstoppable, and therefore fire-fighting efforts are mostly to put on a show for public consumption and as a way to rationalize a paycheck. The show often takes the form of a heroic defense of homes and other private property.

  19. That’s all well and good, but I think I know what my essential point was since I’m the one who wrote the post.

    In short, it was that the myth of Republican fiscal responsibility is just that, a myth. Like it or not, boondoggle or not, the majority of the public demands more from politicians than just a balanced budget.

  20. John Sinrud

    Guys/Gals please listen to the whole conversation and not just what the dems want you to hear, then you may get the whole picture. Its about firefighters saftey and thats it. Also unless one talks to me how does one know what my thoughts are, just remember what assume means. Another point: this is what is wrong with politics why can’t people in all areas sit down and work for a positive change in our world.

  21. Thanks for sitting down with us, John. Now, if it was truly about firefighter safety, as you said, shouldn’t that picture be expanded to include zoning and/or building restrictions on private property located in the wildland-urban interface?

  22. John Sinrud

    Rebecca, there will always be fires regardless of where it is. The issue is about whether the firefighters were trained properly in fighting a structure fire or not. “Fighting a structure fire” also has to be defined relative to wildfires. Then you also need to verify whether the fireman have adequate equipment to fight the structure fire. 1. Do the fireman stay out side the structure or enter the structure? If they go into the structure then we need to look at their safety by reviewing the training and equipment. If you listen to the remaining conversation then you would have understood the original question. Now regarding property rights and safety.

    why can’t one build in the wui but be required to have a defendable area around the house/buildings which will reduce the amount of time that fireman will have to defend the structure and put more people on the lines to contain the wild/forest fire. These are just a few items that need to be looked at. People like Sirota and others just want to demonize others that think differently than them.

  23. If this is genuinely John Sinrud, I don’t know….but I really really have to go see where he stood on legislation this past session that required counties to deal with precisely the issues that he speaks of – requiring zoning and cutting funding if they didn’t zone with regulations that required precisely what he says should be done in the wildland urban interface.

    My recollection is that it failed miserably.

    I’m off to go a-searchin’.

  24. that was just too easy.

    Doesn’t Sinrud know his voting record is on the web?

  25. Actually, John, such a system is already in place right now. I have several close relatives who live in the Seeley-Swan. Every year, a crew from the DNRC or the Forest Service comes out to their (and their neighbors’) property, and evaluates the safety of the house and surrounding woods. They tell the homeowners what needs to be fixed on their own private property. For instance, which trees near the roof or deck need to be cut down, which areas need to be cleared of debris, etc. Then, at the end of the visit, the crews post a colored card at the end of the driveway as a sign to firefighters: green means defensible, yellow means potentially salvageable, and red means forget about it and move on.

    So, essentially, these “items” have been “looked at” already. There’s a system in place. Homeowners on the edges or in the midst of the National Forests already know whether or not their property can be saved. Perhaps something new needs to be brought to all of us sitting at the table.

  26. Thank goodness for the Internets!

  1. 1 John Sinrud memory is failing…. « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Republicans vs. Reality […]

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