Fire Management in the West
April 26, 2019
In recent years, it seems like we just move from one giant wildfire in the Western US to the next. Most recently was Camp Fire in California, which burned 153,336 acres, 13,972 homes and caused the death of 86 people. This picture from NASA shows an aerial view of Camp Fire on November 8, 2018.
Camp Fire burned for 17 days from November 8 – November 25, 2018. The fire started in Butte County near Chico, CA. It is the most destructive wildfire in California history
Between 2000-2016 there were 14 years where wildfires burned at least 3.7 million acres nationwide. That is an area larger than the state of Connecticut. During this time, the US government spent between $809 million and $2.1 billion annually on wildfire suppression. The graph below from the US Forest Service shows how both total acres burned and federal suppression spending have increased steadily since 1985.
Spending on federal suppression includes firefighter salaries, equipment, airplane operations, and any other personnel or resources needed for containing a fire.
So what is causing this increase in wildfire severity in the US? There is no catch-all answer. There are many factors that impact the chances of a wildfire, the severity, and our ability to control it. Ecosystems can differ greatly in climate, vegetation, and elevation which impact wildfires in different ways.
However, there are two main human-caused factors which help explain the increase in area burned: climate change and historical wildfire suppression.
One of the largest contributing factors to the increasing intensity of wildfires over the last several decades is climate change.
“Climate change, combined with other stressors, is overwhelming the capacity of ecosystems to buffer the impacts from extreme events like fires, floods, and storms.”
It’s estimated that climate change has doubled the area burned by wildfires between 1984-2015. Increased temperatures and earlier snowmelt in the western US have led to a longer wildfire season. This is a trend we are likely to see continue as global average temperatures continue to rise. According to the National Research Council, just a 1°C increase in average temperatures is projected to cause an average increase in the area burned anywhere from 200-400%. This graph shows how the 1°C change is projected to impact the median annual area burned in different areas of the West.
For the last century, we had little understanding of the ecological importance of wildfires. As a result, US forest managers prioritized suppressing wildfires trying to protect humans and the environment. However, we now have a better understanding of the important role wildfires play in forest ecology. Certain ecosystems depend on wildland fires to clear out dead litter on forest floors and allow new generations of plants and organisms to take over. The picture below from the US Forest Service shows new vegetation growing after the Storrie Fire in the Plumas and Lassen National Forests in 2000.
Suppressing wildfires in these ecosystems has thrown off the natural balance and can lead to a buildup of plant life on forest floors. This high concentration of fuel has led to an increase in high-intensity fires which has actually made it more difficult to fight fires.
What can be done?
Wildfires are a natural part of our world. We cannot stop them altogether, nor should we attempt to. However, there are steps states can take to prepare for wildfires to ensure minimal danger/damage to humans and to protect natural ecosystems. These options include:
In some ecosystems proper forest management strategies can help to reduce unwanted wildfire impacts. These strategies include prescribed burning (under good weather conditions) and thinning of brush and small trees.
- CA A.B.1067: Requires Director of Parks and Recreation to develop wildfire management plan.
- OK SB 870: Allows Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry to conduct prescribed burning on private and public land.
Interstate and Interagency Cooperation
This complex issue can only be tackled through collaboration and coordination between local communities and state and federal agencies. Policies that establish this cooperation are essential for restoring forest conditions. Washington, California and British Columbia created a Memorandum of Understanding pledging to work together to improve forest resilience and better understand how forests are responding to climate change.
- OR S.B.772: Establishes Task Force on Forest Health Enhancement to find collaborative means to promote proper wildfire management.
- WA S.B. 5106: Creates working group to coordinate state efforts on natural disasters including wildfire.
Land Use/Community Planning
As mentioned, wildfires can’t be avoided altogether. It is crucial that proper planning is done at the wildland-urban interface, the transition zone between wildlands, and human development. This preparation includes land use planning to limit housing in these areas, reducing the fire risks of existing homes and community planning for quick alert and evacuation systems in times of fire.
- CO HB19-1006: Provides grants to people on wildland-urban interface to minimize potential impacts from wildfires.
- CO SB19-040: Establishes Colorado Fire Commission to enhance public safety.
Implementing wildfire management practices is expensive. To ensure these steps are taken properly, states can provide adequate funding for research and implementation.