Forest fire season is upon us again, and this year is likely not going to be pretty. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is already preparing, huge fires are burning in Southern California and Colorado, and the Washington Department of Natural Resources just sued a construction company it said caused the Taylor Bridge wildfire that burned 23,000 acres in Central Washington last summer.
Washington DNR is also warning that young Douglas firs in Western Washington are in poor health because of drought-like conditions last summer and this spring. These dried-out trees are in more danger of succumbing to fire. In other DNR news, the state did not get the drone it wanted in time to help fight Washington wildifires from the air this year.
Federal leaders say the wildfire season around the West will be severe, and last year was already bad to begin with.
In 2012, 9.3 million acres of private, state, and federal land, and more than 4,400 structures burned in wildfires. That was the third highest number of acres burned since at least 1960, the earliest date with reliable records.
The start of fire season is leading many experts in forest management to call for federal and state governments to reform how they fight fires. In particular, the feds should be thinning forests before the fires ever start.
A new study from the U.S. Forest Service itself suggests that thinning and soil management could help trees better retain water and become less suspectible to wildfire. Federal leaders have started to respond to the criticism by focusing less on fire suppression and more on prevention, but change is very slow.
“We are getting better at expenditures and coordination and strategy and manpower and equipment, but the more we fight, the harder nature fights back,” says Richard Minnich, a geography professor at the University of California, Riverside. “We need to look back a century before all this began. Fires happened regularly and therefore were slower, less threatening, and less damaging. No one thinks about stopping an earthquake or a hurricane. We need to go back and embrace the thinking of doing less.”
Diane Vosick, director of policy and partnerships at the Ecological Restoration Institute, Northern Arizona University, concurs that a different emphasis is needed now. “By ramping up our use of helicopters and air tankers and new technology, we are treating symptoms but not the underlying causes,” she said in a phone interview.
…(T)he sequester took a 7.5 percent bite out of the Forest Service’s budget, nearly half of which is spent fighting wildfires. That means there will be 500 fewer pairs of boots on the ground and 200,000 fewer acres treated to prevent fires; the agency’s next proposed budget cuts preventative spending by a further 24 percent. It’s all part of what fire ecologists, environmentalists, and firefighters interviewed by Climate Desk describe as an increasingly distorted federal budget that has apparently forgotten the old adage about an ounce of prevention: It pours billions ($2 billion in 2012) into fighting fires but skimps on cheap, proven methods for stopping megafires before they start.
The slow pace is frustrating for local leaders:
Chris Brehl, a veteran wildland firefighter overseeing Flagstaff’s (wildfire) prevention project, says his city can’t wait around for the feds to get it straight. He maneuvers his pickup truck up a rough, winding forest road, topping out on a high ridge with a breathtaking view of Humphreys Peak, Arizona’s tallest mountain, which saw unusually low snowfall last winter. A bad fire in this bone-dry area, the City of Flagstaff estimates, could cost it $500 million.
“It’s beautiful,” Brehl says. “But I get up here sometimes, and I’m scared. It’s gonna go, and it’s gonna go big.”
Bruce Martin, fire chief at South Lake Tahoe, Calif., told the Christian Science Monitor that he laments a 2007 wildfire that destroyed 242 homes and cost $11.7 million to fight.
“If we had spent just $2 million on fuels management, we might have been able to avoid the devastating loss of structures,” he says. “Unfortunately, that story is not as enticing or glamorous as fire response, and so it doesn’t happen as readily.” Part of what needs to change is the average person’s understanding of the natural world, he says.
“Most people view nature as static. When they see green trees and thickets and decaying ground fuel, they think we should leave it that way,” he says. “But the forester will say that the US has allowed itself to have a hugely unnatural accumulation that leads to mega-fires. We’ve learned an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”