Why is the West betting against climate change?
With wildfires ravaging San Diego County, this year’s fire season is getting off to an early — and destructive — start.
A hotter and drier Southwest may result in the loss of the lion’s share of its forests to fire before this century is done, if extraordinary measures to protect them aren’t soon undertaken. Instead of extraordinary measures, however, Washington has made only token efforts to address this looming crisis.
That danger is already here for much of the West. Drought in Southern California and Texas, and near-drought elsewhere, means that forests are tinder-dry and expected to get even drier during summer. Which is scary — considering so many Americans now live or spend their summers in the “wildland urban interface,” the wooded areas in the West where fire danger is the greatest.
The number of homes located within a half mile of a national forest soared from 484,000 in 1940 to 1.8 million in 2000, Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell testified before a Senate committee last year. It is even higher today.
I’m one of the people who live there. My neighbors and I knew the dangers when we built our homes on the edge of the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. We accepted the risk in exchange for to-die-for views of a thousand square miles of high desert plateau and snow-capped peaks.
That risk became a reality eight years ago this month. A wind-whipped inferno incinerated more than 7,000 acres in a matter of hours. I was lucky: The firestorm narrowly bypassed my cabin and those of my nearest neighbors. But 18 other homes in our village of Lama burned to the ground. Most have not been rebuilt.
Losses from forest fires have increased exponentially. In Colorado last year, fire destroyed 648 structures and caused a record $538 million in property damage. In the 1960s, about 200 homes a year were lost to wildfires. By 2011, that number had jumped to nearly 3,000, as land developers recklessly push up against the forests’ edge.
Seasoned firefighters are also increasingly at risk. Nineteen highly trained elite “hotshot” firefighters died in Arizona, caught in a vortex of flame when winds suddenly shifted — the worst such disaster in 80 years.
Even aside from these human tragedies, the cost for fighting forest fires is soaring. The price tag more than doubled from 2002 to 2012. This year, it is projected to top $1.8 billion, $500,000 more than what has been budgeted to fight fires.
When fire-fighting costs go over budget, the Forest Service typically makes up the shortfall by cutting back on programs designed to prevent catastrophic fires. These cuts are a serious mistake, however. They are an extreme example of being penny-wise and pound foolish. For they leave us fighting the symptoms — but ignoring the disease.
Forest experts now realize that aggressive fire-suppression policies, followed in the West for much of the past century, have been misguided. Natural forests depend on fire to keep them lean and healthy.
Woodlands where fire is kept out become overgrown with unnaturally high “fuel loads” of underbrush and tightly packed trees. When they burn, the result is unstoppable firestorms. These extraordinarily intense blazes, which can spread over 100,000 and more acres, have destroyed vast parcels of forest in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Montana and other Western states in recent years.
Scientists call these blazes mega-fires. When mega-fires reach towns and suburbs, they can sweep right through, destroying hundreds of homes.
We’re never going to stop all fires — and we shouldn’t try. But we can take steps to make them smaller and more manageable. One way is by thinning the vegetation in forests, especially near places where people live. Then, when fire does come, it doesn’t burn out of control.
Experts also recommend more frequent “controlled burns,” when forest managers set their own low-intensity fires. In this manner, forests naturally thin out and mega-fires become less likely.
Still, we shouldn’t expect that even the best human efforts are going to eliminate big fires from the West anytime soon. As the May 6 National Climate Assessment made clear, climate change is going to bring worse droughts and higher temperatures to the West, along with heightened risk of mega-fires.
This increasing danger makes it imperative that we do everything in our power to minimize the risks. But that’s where we’ve been falling short.
“Given the magnitude of the problem,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a research group focused on land management, “and given how much worse it’s going to get, I think that what’s being tried so far is wholly inadequate.”
President Barack Obama proposed an amendment to his fiscal 2014 budget that would allow him to use emergency funds if the costs of fighting fires exceed the amount budgeted. If this bill passes, the Forest Service wouldn’t have to pull funds from essential long-term programs like controlled burns and thinning forests.
Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) have also introduced bipartisan legislation that would add additional money for fire prevention and suppression.
These are steps in the right direction. Cutting our carbon emissions to prevent global warming from getting even further out of control is even more important. The hotter our planet gets, the more readily it will burn. There’s just no way around this.
But it’s also vital to allow fires to burn themselves out when they aren’t an immediate threat to human life. That is the way we are going to reintroduce healthy natural fire back into the ecosystem.
People like me should also think twice before we build our houses in the middle of the forest. If we don’t, every year the United States will waste even more dollars — and risk more firefighters’ lives — protecting homes that should never have been built so close to the burn zone.
PHOTO (TOP): The Las Pulgas Fire is seen burning near military structures at Camp Pendleton, California, May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Sgt. Trevon Peracca/USMC/Handout via Reuters
PHOTO (INSERT 1): A water bomber makes a drop on flames burning on a hillside as the Cocos Fire continues in San Marcos, California, May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Fire personnel drive their vehicle through a burned-out area in the hills around San Marcos, California, May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake
PHOTO (INSERT 3): A firefighter puts out embers near a home which was burnt down on Washingtonia Drive in the Cocos Fire in San Marcos, California, May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Sam Hodgson