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Wildfire policy: Time for US to rely less on shovels, hoses, retardant? (+video)

The rising prevalence of mega-fires indicates that policy changes are needed, say critics of prevailing wildfire-prevention strategy. Fire suppression is not always good, they argue, and pouring ever more money into firefighting is not sustainable.

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• An unprecedented buildup of underbrush, the primary fuel for mega-fires, as the unintended consequence of a century of fire suppression by stopping wildfires quickly.

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• A 1-degree F rise in average temperatures across the West.

• A fire season that lasts 78 days longer, on average, than in the 1980s.

• Increased building of homes and other structures in hilly, wooded areas, which become a fuel jackpot for wildfires. 

In California, where the population grew at least 600,000 a year on average from 1997 to 2007, housing pushed into areas known as the wild/urban interface, or WUI. A similar trend is apparent in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Washington, and Oregon.

"What once was open space is now residential homes, providing fuel to make fires burn with greater intensity," says Terry McHale of the California Department of Forestry firefighters union, in a phone interview. "With so much dryness, so many communities to catch fire, so many fronts to fight, it becomes an almost incredible job."

This year's fire season started very early: Nearly 850 wildfires have flared up in California since January, compared with the average of 522 blazes in the first four calendar months, according to Cal Fire. So far, the rest of the country is below average for number of wildfires, so California has not had many competitors for federal dollars and other firefighting resources. 

"The drought conditions and the fuel growth are something we're seeing in May that you don't usually see until July or August," Mr. McHale told Reuters. "It is scary."

That said, many experts give California, the nation’s most populous state, high marks for making progress on preparedness since 2003, when the largest fires in state history scorched 750,000 acres, burned 3,640 homes, and killed 22 people. Barraged then by critiques charging that ineptitude allowed fires to spread, personnel are now better at meeting the peculiar challenges of neighborhood- and canyon-hopping fires, observers say.

“We’ve gotten much better at coordinating with diverse numbers of agencies,” says Bruce Martin, fire chief of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., and a member of the Fire Science faculty at Cogswell College. He remembers the local Angora fire of 2007, which destroyed 242 residences and 67 commercial buildings, and damaged 35 other homes. At its peak, as many as 2,180 firefighters battled the blaze, which 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.” 

Ms. Vosick, whose institute recently examined the ecologic and economic effectiveness of fuels reduction and restoration treatments, presented her recommendations to members of Congress on Tuesday, when she testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“How can we improve federal wildland fire management?” she said to lawmakers. “The answer is straightforward: We need to be more aggressive about solving the underlying problems of forest health and excess fuels. Our study provides ample economic and ecological evidence for why this makes sense.”

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