Wildfires in the US are Starting Earlier and Burning Longer
Firefighting crews have adjusted to the new threats and priorities
The 1st Alaska wildfire of Y 2016 broke out in late February, followed by a 2nd just 8 days later.
New Mexico has seen 140 fires this year, 2X the number in the same period last year, fueled by perhaps the driest, warmest Winters on record.
This April on the border of California and Arizona, helicopters dumped water on flames so intense that they jumped the Colorado River, forcing the evacuation of 2 recreational vehicle parks.
Fires, once largely confined to a single season, have become a continual threat in some places, burning earlier and later in the year, in the United States and abroad.
Fires have ignited in the US West during the Winter and into the Fall, they have arrived earlier than ever in Canada and have burned without interruption in Australia for nearly 12 months running.
Drier Winters mean less moisture in the soil, and warmer Springs pull that moisture into the air more quickly, turning shrub, brush and grass into kindling aka fuel.
Decades of aggressive policies that called for fires to be put out as quickly as they started have also aggravated this problem. Today’s forests are not just parched, they are overgrown.
In some areas, ”we now have year-round fire seasons, and you can say it couldn’t get worse than that,” said Matt Jolly, a research ecologist for the United States Forest Service. ”We expect from the changes that it can get worse.”
The 10.1-M acres that burned in the United States last year were the most on record, and the Top 5 years for acres burned were in the last 10 yrs. The federal costs of fighting fires rose to $2-B last year, up from $240-M in 1985.
”We take our job to protect the public seriously, and recently, the job has become increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts and a constrained budget environment in Washington,” Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture, said in a statement, noting that 7 firefighters died and 4,500 homes burned in Wildfires in Y 2015.
A fire ecologist with the federally funded Alaska Fire Science Consortium, resists the term ”year-round fire season” because Alaska and other places still have months with snow cover. She has adopted an alternative that she said reflects the more intense nature of recent fires.
”I’m worried about a runaway fire season,” she said. The term captures the idea that dry conditions could lead to fires that simply burn out of control, she explained, as some almost did last summer, Alaska’s second-largest fire season on record, after Y 2004.
This issue has led to disagreements among many fire ecologists about how best to attack the problem.
Some argue that fires should be left to take their natural course and clear out the thick, dry brush on the forest floor.
That approach has run into a challenge, as more and more people are moving into wild lands.
Retirees and urbanites seeking more pastoral settings are pushing farther into places that firefighters must now protect. These modern-day settlers have been supported by municipalities looking to expand their tax bases, and by technology that lets people live and work anywhere they can get an Internet connection, said Ray Rasker, the Executive Director of Headwaters Economics, a research organization that provides consulting services to communities and governments on fire prevention.
”It’s a wonderful new world, where I can live anywhere I want,” Mr. Rasker said, echoing an opinion he said he had often heard. ”I want to live in the woods, but the woods are now flammable, much more flammable than they used to be.”
”It adds up to more people dying, more houses burning and agencies devoting more than half of their fire budget to defending homes,” he said.
Hawaii exhausted in February the annual allocation of money it had set aside to fight wildfires, four months before the busy Summer fire season. The United States Forest Service spent more than 50% of its entire budget on firefighting last year, at the expense of programs aimed at minimizing the risk of fires in the wild, such as planned burns of overgrown patches.
The Forest Service finds itself caught in a troubling cycle: With budgets tight for treating forests to help prevent fires, it inevitably has to spend more money putting them out.
By Key measures, fire season has grown significantly longer in the past 30 years.
The research shows that the season, measured by how many days are hot and dry enough to increase the likelihood of fire, has lengthened by 30 to 45 days across big swaths of the United States, particularly the West.
By another measure, the time between the first and last large fires in a year, the length of the season in the West has increased by 78 days since the 1970’s.
Firefighters in the United States and abroad have been trying different approaches. In the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Manitoba, which recorded more than 2X as many fires last year than their 25-year averages, fire season started on 1 March, a month ahead of normal.
Alaska has moved up its fire season, defined by the date that permits are required for residential yard or other refuse burning, to April from May. Increasingly, fire crews are making calculated decisions to let fires consume the land, concentrating their efforts on safeguarding communities and watersheds and, in turn, minimizing the risks they face.
”More and more, fire crews are pulling back, willing to sacrifice land for safety,” said a professor at the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University and one of the country’s foremost fire historians.
Firefighters and state officials also face pressure to cut costs. But while firefighters are adapting as they can, ”putting their efforts where the values are higher,” as the professor put it, states are struggling.
This year in the state of Washington where a combination of drought, warm temperatures and dense forests made for a long and costly wildfire season last year – Peter Goldmark, public lands commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, asked the State Legislature for an extra $24-M to train more firefighters, put more equipment into the hands of local fire districts and help homeowners clear brush from their properties, he got $6.7-M.
”Given the wet winter, it’s hard to persuade people we may be entering a time of hotter, drier Summers, and we need to be ready,” Mr. Goldmark said.
He is preparing for ”another very difficult fire season,” he said. A large stretch of the Southwest, from Texas and New Mexico through southern Arizona and into Nevada and California, has already been warned by national forecasters to prepare for an ”above normal” risk of significant wildfires through July.
At the Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy, where 3 classes of firefighters trained last month for their 1st season, instructors emphasized the value of a strategy known as ”indirect attack,” the safest and most common method to fight today’s large, hot and volatile blazes.
This strategy calls for crews to carve a so-called fire line meaning buffer zones devoid of anything that burns away from the edge of the fire, and then to burn the vegetation that stands in between, depriving the flames of the fuel that feeds them.
A supervisor at the Academy, said that fires were small enough 20 years ago that dirt trails, such as those used by all-terrain vehicles in the wild lands, were enough to stop them.
”Now,” he said, ”you can put a 6-lane highway between your crew and the fire and, still, the fire will jump it.”
Wildfires are very dangerous, they destroy lives and properly, be careful, act irresponsibly.