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Western Forests Face a Flammable Future

Manage Fire, Don’t Just Suppress It

Fires burning across the Briceburg mountains along side the Merced River in Briceburg, Calif. SOURCE: AP/Gary Kazanjian Climate change is driving average temperatures upward, and the unmistakable long-term trend is toward a warmer, drier West. Firefighting alone can’t contend with growing fire danger; investment in strategic fuel reduction is the key. Above: July fires burning across the Briceburg mountains in California.

Wildfires have charred more than 4.4 million acres nationally so far this year. That’s almost good news. In each of the four previous years, fires had swept over at least 6 million acres by this point in the season, so 4.4 million to date seems close to a blessing by contrast.

Indeed, 2008 is proving to be somewhat of an aberration—a fairly mild fire year across a Rocky Mountain West where massive, sometimes uncontrollable fires have become commonplace in recent decades. Last winter brought ample snow across the mountainous West, and helpful rains have fallen through the spring and summer. Abundant moisture has helped limit the size and severity of fires.

Withholding fire is as powerful an ecological act as applying it.

A new report, however, warns that this year’s conditions are far from typical. The study by the National Wildlife Federation, “Increased Risk of Catastrophic Wildfires: Global Warming’s Wake-Up Call for the Western United States,” documents how the frequency and severity of wildfires have increased dramatically in recent decades. The upshot: “Warmer springs and longer summer dry periods since the mid-1980s are linked to a four-fold increase in the number of major wildfires each year and a six-fold increase in the area of forest burned, compared with the period between 1970 and 1986,” the report says. Today’s fire season is 78 days longer than a generation ago.

Statistics compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center illustrate the trend well: In 1997, fires burned some 2 million acres in all; in 2007 the total was more than 9 million. As the National Fire Protection Association’s Jim Smalley writes, the potential for “mega-fires” is increasing, and nearly every year to come promises to become “the worst fire season ever.” This year notwithstanding, the unmistakable long-term trend is toward a warmer, drier West. Climate scientists cited in the National Wildlife Federation report project global climate change will bring summertime temperatures in the region that run 3.6 to 9 degrees higher than what’s now considered “normal,” and that precipitation will decline as much as 15 percent by the middle of this century. The result will be a climate even more conducive to wildfire.

Across the West, forests have become less healthy and productive—with far, far more potential for larger and often unnaturally intense wildfires.

Of course, we’ve always had wildfires across the West. Over the past 10,000-15,000 years, fires sparked by lightning have shaped our forests; over the past few centuries, human-ignited fires have also had a significant impact on natural systems. Some (mostly lower elevation) types of forests evolved amid frequent but low-intensity wildfires. Other forest types have evolved to accommodate more intense but less frequent fires. The natural role of fire is generally beneficial—clearing out underbrush, holding disease and insect infestations in check, and aiding the regeneration of some types of trees.

Humans, however, have interrupted natural fire cycles. After massive wildfires swept the Northern Rockies in 1910, federal and state land management agencies adopted a policy of aggressive fire suppression with a goal of quickly extinguishing fires wherever and whenever they occur. And they were remarkably successful. The U.S. Forest Service, for example, maintains better than a 90 percent record of stopping fires when they’re small. But as ecology and fire historian Dr. Stephen Pyne explained in Forest History Today, “withholding fire is as powerful an ecological act as applying it.”

In recent decades, it’s become clear that interrupting natural fire cycles has allowed forests to grow unnaturally dense without periodic fires to clear out underbrush and smaller trees. Lack of fires have allowed species of trees not adapted to frequent fires to out-compete thicker-bark tree species that thrive with frequent fires. Without fires, smaller trees now create “fuel ladders” to carry flames into the crowns of larger trees that otherwise might not be scathed by fires burning along the ground. Without fires, insect infestations have begun to reach epidemic levels, creating forests of dead, standing trees. Colorado, for example, has some 1.5 million acres of pine beetle-killed forests primed for burning. In Montana, a fir beetle epidemic more extensive than any other documented in history has killed Douglas firs over hundreds of thousands of acres. Across the West, forests have become less healthy and productive—with far, far more potential for larger and often unnaturally intense wildfires.

As the Government Accountability Office put it in a 1999 analysis, “The most extensive and serious problem related to health of national forests in the interior West is the over-accumulation of vegetation, which has caused an increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable and catastrophically destructive wildfires.”

Compounding matters, the forest fringe remains an attractive place for people to live. The Rocky Mountain West has become one of the fastest-growing parts of the country, and much of that growth takes place in the form of residential development in proximity to our now-overgrown, fire-prone forests.

This combination of factors—a warming climate, unhealthy forests and rampant development—sets the stage for wildfires of great size, intensity, and danger.

The potential for large fires places tens of thousands of homes and entire communities in harm’s way throughout the region. Protecting lives and property has become hugely expensive for local governments, states, and the federal government. Annual federal firefighting expenses have risen more than six-fold over the past decade and now exceed $1 billion in a typical fire year—nearly $2 billion last year—with more than half that money spent to protect homes and communities, a form of mission creep for agencies primarily responsible for land management. The U.S. Forest Service now burns nearly half its entire annual budget on wildfire suppression at the expense of other needed forest management—including measures that could reduce fire danger over the long-term.

The West’s growing fire danger defies simple solutions. One thing is clear, however: The health of our forests—and our own health, safety and prosperity—depends on managing fire rather than strictly suppressing it. In forest ecosystems that evolved with frequent, low-intensity fires, for example, land managers can use “prescribed” or controlled burning to replicate nature in a relatively safe way. In a report commissioned by Western Progress, W. Wallace Covington and Diane J. Vosick of Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute make a compelling case for actively managing fire danger and restoring forest health and productivity through restoration forestry.

We’ll have difficulty managing fire—learning to live with fire—as long as the buildup of forest fuels around houses, neighborhoods and communities leaves too much potential for the loss of property and lives. Before we can make greater use of controlled fires as a management tool or allow more wildfires to burn naturally, we have to do something about the condition of today’s forests. We have to reduce the amount of accumulated fuels. Costs of doing so vary, but $750 to $1,000 an acre is a good ballpark figure. Whatever the cost, it’s massively expensive work to do over the 73 million acres of national forests and 397 million acres in total deemed a high priority for fuel reduction. What’s more, fuel reduction involves tree thinning, which is logging, and that remains a hugely contentious issue in the political arena and courtrooms, at least whenever national forests and other public lands are involved.

But broad consensus does exist among land managers and the public over the merits of forest fuel reduction in proximity to homes, neighborhoods, and communities—an area best known by its bureaucratic moniker: the wildland-urban interface. Aggressive fuel reduction in the wildland-urban interface will make people and their property safer. It won’t fireproof neighborhoods, but it will make the fires less threatening when they reach the thinned-out areas. It will make firefighting safer and more effective, generally resulting in less-intense fires approaching homes and communities. And it will give land managers more flexibility as they work to reduce fuels over a broader swath extending into the national forests. For example, it should be safer and easier to use controlled fire elsewhere in a national forest if thinning has removed excess fuels near communities. As a fringe benefit, fuel-reduction work over the millions of acres that comprise the wildland-urban interface in the West has the potential to employ thousands of workers in rural communities across the West as part of the region’s emerging Restoration Economy.

The value of fuel reduction in proximity to homes and communities is well understood by land-management agencies and, increasingly, by the public. But funding for such work is grossly inadequate—and often diverted to pay for fire suppression. That rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach has made it impossible for federal and state agencies to proactively reduce forest fuels on a large scale. As a result, they—and taxpayers—spend increasing sums reacting to growing wildfires. With current Western burn rates, alongside the sluggish pace of fuel reduction, the region’s forests will burn over before thinning work gets done. What’s needed—from Congress and state legislatures—are new streams of dedicated funding that can ensure steady progress toward meaningfully managing the region’s fire risk.

Steve Woodruff is the Northern Rockies deputy director for Western Progress, a nonpartisan regional policy institute dedicated to advancing progressive policy solutions for the Rocky Mountain West.

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