Wildfire policy: Time for US to rely less on shovels, hoses, retardant?

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.

Nick Ut/AP
Justin Rendich, a firefighter from Santa Clarita, hoses a hot spot at a wildfire in Lancaster, Calif., June 3.

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.

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:

• 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.

• 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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