The loss of 19 firefighters in an Arizona wildfire has brought nationwide sympathy for their families. This is the highest number of firefighters killed since the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center towers and the largest loss of firefighters in any wildfire since 1933.
But the tragedy should also refocus attention on the scope and nature of wildfires in the United States. Since 2000, the nation has experienced eight of the nine worst fire seasons in terms of land burned. And in eight states from California to Florida since 2007, wildfires have set new records in size or destructiveness.
Improving the skills and safety of firefighters is obviously only one answer to Sunday’s tragedy. The causes for today’s wildfires, mainly in the Southwest, have become far more complex. More people are building homes near forests. Shifting weather patterns have brought longer droughts, hotter temperatures, and higher wind speeds. Beetle infestations have created more tinderbox conditions.
In addition, Americans still have a strong tendency to suppress any forest fire, leaving timberlands with excess underbrush that only fuels bigger fires.
Dealing with these causes requires far more cooperation across a greater number of stakeholders, from the US Forest Service to the timber industry to new residents near wilderness areas. To accept difficult solutions for wildfires, all players must develop trust and forge agreements, often with humility. Sometimes the solutions may not even work. It can be difficult to predict forest ecology or to know what is sustainable in nature.
One of the more ambitious projects in bringing together stakeholders has been the Four Forest Restoration Initiative based in northern Arizona. It aims to thin out more than 2 million acres of trees in four national forests over the next 20 years and allow for prescribed burns in hopes of creating a self-regulating mechanism for fires.
While government, environmentalists, scientists, and private industry have worked together to come up with this plan, implementing it has been difficult. The initial contract to cull the forests is off to a slow and troubling start. Yet the costs are probably worth the effort. For every dollar spent on prevention, such as removing dry and small timber, $10 may be saved in firefighting costs, according to Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute.
Many communities near forests need to either restrain new home building or work with residents to create fire-residant landscaping. A model for such efforts is Oakland, Calif., which saw 25 people killed in the 1991 East Bay Hills Fire. The Forest Service is also helping hundreds of communities in its Firewise program adapt to fire dangers.
Solving the wildfire problems in the US can no longer rely on endless political battles or long court cases to come up with solutions. They can be time-consuming and expensive. Government budgets are tighter, fire dangers are higher, but models for cooperation are available. Private-public partnerships are needed to deal with forests prone to big fires.
Losing 19 forest firefighters in Arizona should bring more people together to prevent such tragedies. The nation has seen a two-year decline in the number of deaths of all types of firefighters because of new safety procedures and better home-fire prevention. Now wildfires need to be better addressed.