A government’s decades-old strategy of putting out any kind of forest fire is changing course.
The Biden administration this week announced a $50 billion plan to more than double the use of prescribed burning and logging to clear vegetation that has fueled the growing number of catastrophic wildfires, mostly in the West.
“You are going to have forest fires. The question is how catastrophic these fires must be,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Associated Press. “The time to act is now if we are to ultimately change the trajectory of these fires over time.”
The new approach comes after several years of increasingly large and destructive wildfires for nearby forests and communities. A Deseret News analysis of wildfire data on federal lands found that over the past five years, more than 113,000 wildfires have charred more than 30 million acres in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho , Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Data from the National Interagency Fire Center shows about 40% of fires in the West since 2017 have occurred in California, which accounted for more than a quarter of all acres burned on average, killing residents, forcing evacuations, damaging property and spilling air pollutants in other states. . Six of California’s seven largest fires occurred in 2020 or 2021, according to state records.
The initial focus of the new campaign will be on ‘hotspots’ where development has clashed with forested areas. They represent only 10% of fire-prone areas in the United States, but represent 80% of the risk to communities due to their population density and location.
“We know from a scientific perspective precisely where this action needs to take place in many of these forests in order to protect communities, in order to protect people,” Vilsack said.
Wildfire expert John Abatzoglou, an engineering professor at the University of California, Merced, told the AP that it makes sense to focus on the wildfire risks closest to communities. .
“Our dashboard for fires should be about lives saved rather than acres that haven’t burned,” he said.
Tame the flames
A warming climate and prolonged drought in the West have dried out the overgrowth of trees and other vegetation, turning forested areas into a powder keg, wildfire experts say. And a study in Australia by researchers at Stanford University showed that controlled fires that thin out the bloom reduce the risk of fires burning hotter and out of control.
“Prescribed burns, combined with thinning of vegetation that allows fire to penetrate the tree canopy, have been shown to be effective in reducing wildfire risk,” reported the university’s Earth Matters magazine. . “They rarely escape their set limits and have ecological benefits that mimic the effects of natural fires, such as reducing the spread of disease and insects and increasing species diversity.”
Forest thinning has also proven effective in the West, where the effort has been credited with slowing the progress of last summer’s Caldor Fire which destroyed nearly 800 homes and caused the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents and tourists. Oregon’s Bootleg Fire last July burned more than 600 square miles but caused less damage in forest that has been thinned over the past decade.
“We know it works,” Vilsack said. “It’s about removing some of the wood, in a very scientific and thoughtful way, so that ultimately the fires don’t just keep jumping from treetop to treetop, but end up get to the ground where we can put them out. ”
He acknowledged that the new effort will require a “paradigm shift” within the US Forest Service, from preventing all fires to using what some Native Americans call “good fire” on forests and rangelands to prevent bigger fires.
The aggressive plan that would cover some 50 million acres also calls for working with private landowners and Native American tribes in both the most at-risk and other vulnerable areas. Vilsack added that the Department of Agriculture had not paid attention to underserved communities in the past, but would make sure they were included this time, according to The New York Times.
The Burning West
Although forest overgrowth has contributed to increased wildfire intensity in the West, other factors include climate change and a historic regional drought. Both factors can also be attributed to the longer fire season. A wind-whipped wildfire ripped through a Colorado suburb last month.
But the main source of wildfire ignition comes from the growing population in the West, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.
Human-caused fires account for 62% of wildfires since 2018, burning more than 12.5 million acres, according to Deseret News analysis. The types of fires started by people range from careless campers and fireworks to communities and power lines in remote areas. A 2021 fire that threatened homes in Utah’s busy Parleys Canyon was started by a motorist’s faulty catalytic converter on a car traveling on I-80.
“People are always creating possible sparks, and as the dry season drags on and things get more and more dry, the likelihood of a spark hitting a person at the wrong time increases. And that puts aside arson,” Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told The Times in an article explaining why California has so many wildfires.
The story noted that seasonal winds are another source of fast-spreading fires in California.
While 2020 was one of the worst fire seasons on record, state agency Cal Fire said the combined factors will create another challenging fire season in 2022 in this gaze and in the region.
“While wildfires are a natural part of the California landscape, the fire season in California and throughout the West starts earlier and ends later each year,” the agency’s outlook for 2022 says. climate change is seen as a key driver of this trend. Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase water stress on vegetation and make forests more vulnerable to severe wildfires. The length of the fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days in the Sierras and appears to correspond with an increase in the extent of wildfires across the state.
Here’s a look at the number of wildfires and the area burned on federal lands in the West over the past five years, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. 2021 data is preliminary:
Wildfires in the West
|State||Year||Number of fires||Amount of Acres Burned|
|State||Year||Number of fires||Amount of Acres Burned|
|New Mexico||2018||1,334||382 345|
|New Mexico Total||4,696||837 199|
|Total Wyoming||3,064||804 493|
contributor: K. Sophie Will