By Michael Kodas
This year has seen an explosion of wildfires that have set records for death and destruction from California to Kansas. As the smoke continues to clear from the deadly flames that swept across parts of California’s wine country, history and the reality on the ground suggest the threat will grow only worse, not only for California, the most fire-prone state, but throughout the West.
In 2015, for the first time since at least 1960, more than 10 million acres of land burned in wildfires, three times what burned in an average year in the 1970s. Scientists in the United States Forest Service predict that by the middle of this century, twice that acreage will burn. That’s an area nearly the size of the state of Maine.
The Forest Service reports that more than a third of American homes, some 44 million residences, are in what firefighters call the “Wildland Urban Interface,” where they risk burning in wildfires. Many of those homes, like those that caught fire within the city limits of Santa Rosa earlier this month, are inhabited by people who have no idea they face a wildfire threat. The fuel surrounding their homes is largely the vegetation they planted there. Yet when a wind-driven fire pushes “ember attacks” into neighborhoods deep inside a community, the fires they ignite don’t discriminate between woodlands and landscaping. And the thousands of new homes that are being built each year deeper into flammable forests and brushlands are at even greater risk.
The fire season is also expanding and is now on average 78 days longer than it was in 1970, a consequence of a warmer and dryer climate. Adding to the problem, mountain snowpack that used to keep forests moist has been in decline in some Western ranges and melts earlier than it did during the previous century. After sundown, higher temperatures and lower humidity increasingly drive fires to rage through the night, when their spread used to slow. Wintertime wildfires are no longer rare occurrences.
Failed firefighting policies from the past century are also contributing to the explosion of wildfires today. The “10 a.m.” policy that the Forest Service instituted in the 1930s required that every natural wildfire be contained and controlled by the morning after it was reported. This quick response to extinguishing blazes meant that some woodlands that had been naturally thinned by fires every 10 years or so might go decades or more without them. Small trees, shrubs and fallen timber filled those forest floors, and once widely spaced treetops closed into dense canopies, thick with needles. Some forests thickened with as much as 40 times more woody fuel than they held before the zero tolerance policy toward wildfire.
Ground fires that once burned slow and low through the grasses on the forest floor grew bigger in the unnaturally heavy load of scrub and timber. Branches known as “ladder fuels” carried the flames high into the trees, where winds could blow them into crown fires that raced through the tightly clustered treetops. While it’s a minority of the nation’s forests that show increased fire severity because of this past policy, these forests tend to be adjacent or within housing developments.
Budgets are also going up in flames. Even before the Northern California fires, the Forest Service had spent $2.35 billion fighting wildfires in the fiscal year that ended last month — $650 million more than fiscal year 2015, which had been its costliest year for firefighting. The rising costs are turning the Forest Service into the “Fire Service.” In 1995, the agency spent 16 percent of its budget on wildfires. This year wildland blazes are on track to consume 56 percent of those funds, and by 2021 the Forest Service anticipates that fires will burn through two-thirds of its funding.
Other federal agencies that fight wildfires, such as the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are also seeing their budgets burned, as are states and local firefighting agencies.
With seven times the number of homes burning in wildfires today compared with the 1970s, wildland firefighters with little more than the fire resistant clothes on their backs, the chain saws and axes in their hands and the fire shelters strapped to their waists increasingly are called up to somehow stand up to the flames. And as was the case in the 2013 fire near Yarnell, Ariz., that claimed the lives of 19 firefighters, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, many of the homes and communities firefighters are being asked to protect have done little to prepare themselves for wildfires, magnifying the danger.
To some commanders, sending firefighters to protect homes and communities unprepared for the clear threat is effectively subsidizing a lifestyle with the lives of young men and women. They’re increasingly refusing to do that. That’s an important first step toward lowering the death toll, at least among emergency responders. Focusing forest thinning operations and prescribed burns on overgrown woodlands near communities is another. Modernizing the airpower used to hold back wildfires and carefully considering when and how to use it will make airborne firefighting safer and more effective, as will new technologies aiding the firefight every year. Building codes, land-use planning, insurance rates that reward wise construction and development, and community wildfire protection plans can also make a real difference.
Most important, however, is an “all hands on deck” engagement from everyone who lives or works in our nation’s increasingly fire-prone lands. We’ll never reduce the destruction of wildfires if we leave the task to “only the brave.”
Michael Kodas is associate director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame.”
SOURCE: New York Times