Like knowing that firefighters have your back come summer fire season? So do we. Thanks to across-the-board budget cuts courtesy of the sequester, the U.S. Forest Service will have 500 fewer of them this year, while the Department of the Interior will also have reduced firefighting forces, which is potentially bad news for a year when some regions may be facing a record-breaking fire season.
The Western states of the U.S. are dry as a tinderbox thanks to a drought and early warming that’s acting to quickly dry out shrubs, trees and grasses. While many people are enjoying the clear, warm days, they’re ominous for later in the year, when summer wildfires could burn hot and intense, and every available firefighter — including personnel from other states — will be needed.
Wisely recognizing that it’s not logistically advisable to cut firefighters from the West, it’s the East Coast that will be looking at the brunt of the cuts, with the Forest Service predicting an average fire season for the Eastern States that should make the cuts manageable. It also assures the public that it has the ability to borrow funds from other locations, such as fire prevention reserves, to hire more firefighters and secure more equipment if it becomes necessary.
However, the situation highlights a sort of perfect storm of circumstances, one which should have members of the public worried. It started decades ago with dangerous forest management practices that focused on fire suppression at all costs, allowing for a dangerous buildup of undergrowth, unhealthy trees and shrub outside forested regions. People mistakenly believed that the best way to deal with fires was to prevent them from happening at all and to immediately suppress them when they arose, which sounds like a good idea, but, as it turns out, they were wrong.
The result of their practices was the development of millions of acres of tinder across the United States ready to light up at the stroke of a flash of lightning or a dropped cigarette butt. Fires spread quick and hot through this readily-available fuel, and then they leap up into the tops of the trees, in what is known as a “crown fire.” Crown fires burn fierce and hard, and they rapidly spill out across the landscape. They require huge fire crews to manage, and can be extremely dangerous for both lives and property.
In response to a greater understanding of forest and fire management, the U.S. Forest Service has slowly been working on restoration of America’s forests with controlled burns and other measures to limit undergrowth and excessively dense trees. This is a vital part of fighting fires, as it allows for quick-burning, low-heat fires when wildfires do occur. While such fires need to be monitored and sometimes actively fought, they’re far less dangerous than the raging monsters that have developed as a result of human interference with the natural environment.
Millions of acres across the country are still patiently awaiting restoration in a year when the fire season may be particularly bad across the West and the U.S. Forest Service is facing a reduced operating budget. That’s a potential recipe for disaster, because the money for additional fire suppression funds is going to come directly from the prevention funds currently paying for restoration. The U.S. Forest Service could be facing a vicious cycle this year and into next as it borrows from Peter to pay Paul in a desperate attempt to maintain public safety and stay ahead of the budget cuts.
Are we ready for what might be an explosive fire season?
Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service, Kaibab National Forest