Conditions are ripe for a fire season that is expected to be even worse than last year’s record-shattering one.
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Wearing soot-smudged, fire-resistant clothing and helmets, several wildland firefighters armed with hoes moved through a stand of ponderosa pines as flames tore through the underbrush.
The firefighters were not there to extinguish the fire. They had started it.
The prescribed burn, ignited this month near the scenic mountain town of Bend, is part of a massive effort in wildlands across the U.S. West to prepare for a fire season that is expected to be even worse than last year’s record-shattering one.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have thinned by hand, machines and prescribed burns about 1.8 million acres of forest and brushland since last season, officials from the agencies told The Associated Press. They typically treat some 3 million acres every year.
All that activity, though, has barely scratched the surface. The federal government owns roughly 640 million acres in the U.S. All but 4 percent of it lies in the West, including Alaska, with some of it unsuitable for prescribed burning.
“All these steps are in the right direction, but the challenge is big and complex,” said John Bailey, professor of silviculture and fire management at Oregon State University. “And more needs to be done to even turn the corner.”
The efforts face a convergence of bleak forces.
Severe drought has turned forests and grasslands into dry fuels, ready to ignite from a careless camper or a lightning strike. More people are building in areas bordering wildlands, expanding the so-called wildland-urban interface, an area where wildfires impact people the most. Invasive, highly flammable vegetation is spreading uncontrolled across the West.
“I’m seeing probably the worst combination of conditions in my lifetime,” said Derrick DeGroot, a county commissioner in southern Oregon’s Klamath County. “We have an enormous fuel load in the forests, and we are looking at a drought unlike we’ve seen probably in the last 115 years.”
Asked how worried he is about the 2021 fire season, Mr. DeGroot said: “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m a 12. Nothing looks good.”
In other prevention measures in the West, utility companies are removing vegetation around power lines and are ready to impose blackouts when those lines threaten to spark a fire.
Armies of firefighters are being beefed up. And communities are offering incentives for residents to make their own properties fire-resistant.
This comes with challenges as increasing wildfire resilience often requires trade-offs, said Erica Fleishman, professor at Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.
Cities or states could require defensible spaces around homes. Building codes could call for fire-resistant materials. That would drive up construction costs but also mean homes would be less likely to burn and need rebuilding, she said.
“The insurance industry and the building industry and communities and lawmakers are all going to need to have the will to create these changes,” she said.
Dr. Fleishman also believes more prescribed fires could be conducted in the wildland-urban interface, but said “society is risk averse.”
“Right now, there’s not, in many cases, a whole lot of will to do it,” she said.
Prescribed burns target vegetation that carries flames into forest canopies, where they can explode into massive wildfires.
Planning and preparing for them can take two to five years. And carrying them out is a never-ending task, said Jessica Gardetto, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, in Boise, Idaho.
While targeting one forest, other forests continue to grow, creating “this vast buildup across the landscape,” she said.
Besides overgrown forests, the West faces a newer threat: cheatgrass, which grows prolifically after a wildfire and becomes incredibly flammable.
Ms. Gardetto said trying to get rid of the invasive grass is like the endless toil of Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure who was forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down as it neared the top, over and over again.
After a fire is put out, the first thing to come back is cheatgrass.
“It starts this horrible cycle that is really difficult to combat,” she said.
California Governor Gavin Newsom and U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen signed an agreement last August committing the state and the federal agency to scale up treatment of forest and wildlands to 1 million acres annually by 2025.
They have a long way to reach that goal. Cal Fire, a state agency responsible for protecting over 31 million acres of California’s privately owned wildlands, treated some 20,000 acres with prescribed fire and thinning from last summer through March.
Meanwhile, California increased the number of seasonal firefighters by almost 50 percent, according to Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for Cal Fire.
Despite all these efforts, warnings are going out telling people to be ready for the worst.
The Oregon Office of Emergency Management advised residents on Monday to have a bag packed and have an evacuation plan.
“Abnormally dry conditions and pre-season fires on the landscape are causing concern for the 2021 wildfire season,” the agency said. “Now is the time for Oregonians to prepare themselves, their families and their homes for wildfire.”
Why It Is Growing Worse
A look at conditions during U.S. fires in 2020 provides clues why fires have been trending more widespread and destructive. Last year, deadly fires devoured more than 13.7 million acres, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center. That is approximately triple the acreage burned in 2019 and well above the nation’s 10-year average.
Historically, fires in the region tended to burn low to the ground, eliminating dead conifer limbs, keeping competing species in check and prompting pine cones to open and disperse their seeds.
These days, fire crews are seeing increasing cases of massive “tree-torching” fires that engulf forests from the ground up through the canopy.
“Fires are not unnatural, but the kind of behavior and the times, places and conditions they are igniting in are very, very unusual,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, who heads the Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, an Oregon-based advocacy group that promotes forest management to mitigate fire risks.
If fires sweep a forest too frequently, they will wipe out saplings before they can reach maturity. Too hot, and the fire can turn large areas into a moonscape barren of the seeds needed for new growth.
In California, a rise of 1.4 degrees Celsius in average summertime temperatures since the 1970s coincided with a five-fold increase in acreage burned annually, researchers reported last year in the American Geophysical Union.
The same dry conditions that aggravate the fires also undermine new forest growth.
Yet some researchers do not entirely blame warmer temperatures for worsening wildfires.
Time explained: “Urban development in vulnerable areas can make fires more devastating, and many of the state’s most destructive fires were started by humans…Max Moritz, a specialist in cooperative extension at the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, says hotter temperatures have made fire seasons longer, too. Scientists see a direct link between rising temperatures and the amount of dry brush and ample fuel, which makes the fires fast-moving and often more explosive.”
“There’s good, solid research linking temperature increases to trends in fire activity,” Mr. Moritz told the magazine. “But it’s really long-term trends.”
Hotter temperatures. More urban development. People carelessly or deliberately sparking blazes. These are all factors in why wildfires are growing worse, but they overlook a major underlying cause—one that is over 100 years in the making.
In the late 1800s, the U.S. government established a policy of fire suppression. The Washington Post quoted a Joint Fire Science Program report that called wildfires the “moral and mortal enemy of the forest.” Wooded areas were also valued for their economic value as standing timber.
This thinking has colored America’s approach to forest management for decades. Fight any fire that starts instead of letting it burn. It also meant not using prescribed burns to clear out overgrowth. The result is forests thick with fuel waiting for a spark.
Scientists estimate that at least 10 to 15 million acres need to burn every year in order to return forests to a more natural condition, The New York Times reported. While the U.S. government recorded that 9.7 million acres burned in 2017 and 10.1 million in 2015, the public perception is that these numbers are way too high—and the issue is complicated by the amount of people living in heavily forested areas.
An article from The Washington Post explained how yesterday’s fire suppression policies impact blazes now: “What’s different about today’s fires is the intensity with which they’re burning. One reason is that fire suppression has changed Western forests. Take the ponderosa stands of the Southwest: Historically, low-intensity blazes, ignited by lightning or indigenous peoples, burned every five to 10 years, thinning the forest of young saplings and brush and leaving just 150 large trees per acre. Today, in the absence of flames, those stands are choked with as many as 1,200 trees per acre—too thick to walk through without risking a branch in your eye.”
Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter summarized the problem to KPIX 5: “After aggressively suppressing fires for the last 100 years we have put our forests in a state of peril.”
“By abstaining from controlled burns year after year, unchecked growth has multiplied, dried out and created a tinderbox,” the news outlet wrote. “The overgrowth has fueled deadly, out-of-control wildfires like the Carr Fire near Redding that took the lives of a four- and five-year-old.”
Mr. Porter was further quoted: “Prescribed burns alone will not stop that, but it is a tool that we can use to reduce the effect of those large fires.”
As concerns mounted about more frequent and severe seasonal fires, California ramped up its annual spending on forest fire prevention work to $200 million in the 2018 fiscal year from $40 million, according to a 2018 state report.
The U.S. Forest Service said it expects to spend around $250 million a year under its agreement with the state to treat half a million acres a year.
However, about 163 million trees have died in the state in the last decade due to drought and bark beetle infestation, mainly in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, creating huge swaths of flammable material, according to a 2019 Forest Service survey.
In September, a Forest Service official said the agency needed to double or triple its efforts in the fire-prone state.
“We’re working really hard but we know it’s not nearly enough,” Chris French, national forest system deputy chief, said in testimony before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources. “In places like California it means treating two to three times more acres per year than our current actions.”
Seeing the results of these fires is devastating—both with homes and businesses ruined as well as injury and death. Yet the wildfires on the West Coast reveal a trait of humankind. We try to fix problems and end up causing even worse problems in the process. Fire suppression is just one example. Antibiotics giving rise to worse and worse superbugs is another. War usually spawns more conflict in the long run.
As a rule, when human beings are involved, any attempt to solve problems begets more problems and makes the situations even more complex.
Ask: Are we doomed to live with worsening difficulties?
The better question is why? Man is capable of incredible genius, yet his very worst problems—war, famine, disease and increasingly deadly forest fires—remain. This is a question every person alive should strive to answer. Read Why Man Cannot Solve His Problems for more.
This article contains information from The Associated Press.