Climate change is making wildfire season much longer. Scientists with the U.S. Forest Service say that, across the country, a 50 percent increase in wildfires is likely; in certain areas of the West, a 100 percent increase is expected. Yet, the Obama administration is proposing a 31 percent cut in funding for the government’s central fire prevention program.
In recent years, wildfires have been more and more serious — eight of the nine most destructive wildfires in the history of the U.S. occurred after 2000 — and resulted in the federal government devoting more dollars to fighting them instead of funding wildfire prevention measures such as clearing brush and dead trees. While firefighting costs once comprised 13 percent of the Forest Service’s budget, they now take up 40 percent. And even though costs are rising, the Forest Service’s budget has been cut by $28 million, due to the sequester.
While fighting a fast-moving wildfire near Prescott in central Arizona, 19 firefighters died this past Sunday – the highest number to die in a wildland fire since 1933 and the most who have perished since the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2011. All were members of an elite “hotshot” unit from Prescott, trained to deal with the worse wildfires and had been deployed near the town of Yarnell. Wind gusts had spread the wildfire from covering 200 acres to 2,000 acres just within hours.
A memorial attended by hundreds was held for the firefighters on Monday and a multi-agency team of investigators has arrived in the area. A member of the Southwest incident team says that it so far appears that the firefighters followed safety protocols but were simply overwhelmed by the “fire’s erratic nature.”
Meanwhile, the Arizona fire has continued to burn over 8,000 acres and hundreds of firefighters are working to fight it even now. Fifteen other wildfires are burning uncontained from New Mexico to California and Idaho and represent what scientists say is the “new normal” in a dryer, hotter west.
Fire Prevention Is a Must
As the Christian Science Monitor underscores, the tragedy should “refocus attention on the scope and nature of wildfires in the United States” and of the need to vastly step up fire prevention measures.
A number of factors are making wildfires more dangerous. Arizona’s temperature has risen at the rate of 0.72 degrees per decade since the 1970s, the fastest among the 50 states. The growing season is now starting earlier, meaning that there is more to burn. Further exacerbating the situation is the building of thousands of homes in areas increasingly close to fire-prone places and also a policy of putting out all fires. Natural fires actually help to clear out underbrush, the New York Times points out; a policy of putting out those fires has led to a huge accumulation of dried, highly flammable material.
Massive wildfires affect long-term atmospheric conditions, scientists have found, by emitting gases, particles, water and heat and influencing global temperatures and precipitation. Smoke particles can suppress the formation of clouds and precipitation and can lead to more droughts. Black carbon and the small black particles that color smoke, could cause snow to melt faster.
“How we live on the land, what we decide we put on public and private lands, how we do things and don’t do things on the land, changes its combustibility,” says Stephen J. Pyne, one of the nation’s leading fire historians and a professor at Arizona State University, in the New York Times. One fire prevention project, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative in northern Arizona, has the goal of thinning out more than two million acres of trees in four national forests over the next two decades, while also overseeing prescribed burns. Communities near forests need to consider restraining new construction and also encourage residents to create fire-resistant landscaping.
We do know and are seeking ways to prevent catastrophic fires like those burning now in the Western U.S. What we need to do is to put our dollars in these as well as to rethink development in fire-prone areas and accept that, in an era of global warming, catastrophic fires could become the norm.
Photo via U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr