Fire management in the West: A dangerous game of Whac-a-Mole
U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Cal Fire crews fighting a wildfire near San Diego. Federal and state budget cuts have greatly reduced California's wildland fire resources.
As more than 400 firefighters attack a 2200-acre wildfire in Riverside County, and huge fires continue to burn in Colorado and the Southwest, recent studies have projected that the western U.S, wracked by an increasingly hot and dry climate, will experience more frequent and intense fires in the near future.
But pinpointing just where and when those larger, hotter, more destructive fires will occur — in the near term — is a much different sort of science.
The job of seasonal wildfire forecasting, it turns out, falls to an agency called the National Interagency Fire Center. Each month, the Boise-based NIFC, a collaborative of eight federal agencies, including the National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Weather Service, issues its Wildland Fire Outlook [PDF], which offers a year-to-date tally and projections of acres burned along with a comprehensive look at where fire conditions are ripe.
Ed Delgado, manager of the NIFC’s Predictive Services program, says his team looks at a number of factors including snowpack, drought, fuel conditions (that is, the amount of dry vegetation available to burn) and periodic climate variations such as El Niño and La Niña.
This year, the Great Basin, Rocky Mountains and northern Sierra are in the “above normal” category for fire, said Delgado, because of prolonged drought, low snowpack and high fuel-loading of of dead timber and grasses. “We had a very limited snow in the deserts of the Great Basin and that allowed grasses from previous years to remain standing tall,” said Delgado. “This added to the fuels available to burn.”
As for California, the NIFC has predicted that the central Sierra and the Coastal Ranges will come into above average fire danger from July to September, with fires above 8,000 feet more likely than in recent seasons. (Richard Minnich, a fire ecologist at the University of California, Riverside, has predicted low fire risk at low elevations in the southern half of the state because of scant winter rainfall that killed grasses before they deposited seeds.)
Delgado says he has personally seen fire season come earlier by a matter of a few weeks in parts of Utah and Nevada. But the NIFC’s forecasts do not examine whether such changes in seasonal fire activity – such as that in the central Rocky Mountains where the forecast number of fires (1,888) are more than double, and the number of acres projected to burn (186,083) nearly double, the June average – are the result of long-term shifts in climate, or fire suppression, grazing and other management practices that have increased fuel stores – or some combination of these ingredients.
Figuring out just how these factors contribute to fire activity, year-to-year, may be critical, especially with resources stretched thin because of deep cuts to wildland firefighting budgets at federal, state and local levels. Earlier this month, for example, the Guardian reported $512 million in federal cuts for wildfire suppression and preparedness – an overall decrease of 12 percent since 2010. In California, governor Jerry Brown announced an $80 million reduction in the Cal Fire budget. In response, the agency downsized the number of seasonal firefighters on its rolls from 3100 in 2010, to 1700 this year, and for the second straight year has reduced staffing on engine crews from four to three. (Cal Fire faces another $60 million in trigger cuts next year if the governor’s new tax plan fails to be adopted in the November election.)
Others, however, have questioned the wisdom of allocating tens-of-millions of dollars to fighting wildfires, which once were an essential part of the natural lifecycle of forests and grasslands. As Daniel Glick, writing in Audubon Magazine last year about the proliferation of billion-dollar “megafires”over the last decade, described it:
Experts wondered if “fighting” these colossal fires wasn’t about as effective as dropping DC-10 tanker loads of $100 bills into the flames. More than three million acres have burned each year since 1999—and a 10-million-acre year is almost certainly on the horizon. As the cost of firefighting crossed the billion-dollar mark every year since 2002, another measure of “mega” began to catch policy makers’ eyes: mega expensive. The money being thrown around to douse these fires has pretty much gone up in smoke—and more than 400 wildfire fighters have died since 1987.
The fire-prone reaches of the West are faced with a daunting future. Climate change coupled increased fuel loads from periodic drought, fire suppression and pine beetle outbreaks will make fires more frequent and more intense. Declining budgets coupled with rising costs of fighting these growing conflagrations will limit the resources available to suppress them. While fire is indeed necessary to germinate seeds and reduce fuels, suburban and exurban growth has pushed to the edges — and deep into the interiors — of the nation’s forests and rangelands. (For example, more than 800,000 structures now sit in fire prone areas amid the 31 million acres of California open space overseen by Cal Fire.) This creeping development has permanently altered the natural dynamics of forests and has made some of the best tools for preventing large wildfires – prescribed burns, for example – into highly risky propositions.
The heat is on for solutions. What are your thoughts?