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.
In California, wildfire response is a fine art. The drills would be an orchestrated thing of beauty, if not for the danger inherent in the task: Firefighters wrestle hoses up steep canyons, planes and helicopters drop water and fire retardant by the river full, backup resources are poised to invade if the wind shifts or embers fly the wrong way, and reverse 911 calls go out with evacuation orders.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Wildfires 2013
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But for all the progress made in fighting fires, California and other arid US states are still not getting fire control right, even though research has for almost a decade indicated what changes are needed, according to fire and forestry experts. At the root of the problem, many say, is man's instinct to suppress fire whenever and wherever it appears, coupled with a "hands' off" approach to underbrush management and unwise new development in fire-prone areas.
“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.
Few would say it's sensible to just let homes and businesses burn down – though some do, especially for structures built in remote, forested areas.
"It would irresponsible and politically impossible to expand that principle [of "let it burn"] to heavily populated areas,” says Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College. “There would be way too much death and damage.”
But officials and residents continue to try to rely primarily on firefighting improvements and greater firefighting expenditures, instead of limiting development at the wild-urban interface, enforcing rules for property owners, preventing rebuilding in fire zones, and changing "fuel management" practices to shrink the supply of tinder, these fire-policy critics charge.
Dr. Minnich is one who has long argued that a century’s worth of suppression of small fires has created today's tinderbox – that wildfires ignite and become so hot and move so fast or so erratically that no amount of resources, technology, and manpower can stop them. The rising prevalence of such mega-fires, or siege fires, has been the subject of research, and news reports, for several years now. His words convey a certain frustration about the pace of change.
“The public became aware of a whole new era, but here we are several years later and the trend is more entrenched and only promises to intensify as forests get drier,” Minnich says. “And mankind insists on building homes in the heart of what is essentially a carpet bomb.”
Four factors that are playing into the rise of mega-fires are the following: