In the first half of September alone, there have been eight different wildfires in California. The largest of these, the Valley Fire, has destroyed up to 1,000 buildings and killed three people. In mid-August, three firefighters were killed and four injured while battling a Washington state fire, with property losses valued at more than $10 million. What are the causes of this increased fire activity, and what is it costing us?
Forest Management, Drought and Heat
National fire policy was first established after many years of severe fires between 1910 and 1935. At the time, fire exclusion was believed to promote ecological stability. For decades, fire policy largely called for fire suppression, even as federal agencies began recognizing the natural role of fires. As a result, many places have dramatically altered fire regimes, making today’s fires larger and more severe.
Historically, fire has played an important ecological role in North America. During pre-industrial times (1500-1800), an average of 145 million acres burned annually, compared to only 14 million acres in 2001. Land use changes are responsible for about half of the decrease, with land management actions responsible for the other half.
Many North American ecosystems are adapted to fire, including ponderosa pine, whitebark pine, oak savanna, and aspen ecosystems. Suppressing fires also affects individual plant species that benefit from wildland fire or are found in fire-adapted ecosystems.
Now, fire managers fully recognize that wildland fires play an important ecological role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. For example, one of the goals of the Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, recipient of RNRF’s 2015 Outstanding Achievement Award, is to “facilitate the reduction of wildfire management costs, including through re-establishing natural fire regimes and reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire.” In the first five years of this program, more than 1.45 million acres have been treated to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.
However, vegetation accumulation from historic fire management is still resulting in more frequent and intense fires that are expected to become even larger and more severe in the future. In addition, the increasing wildland-urban interface resulting from continued development in and around wildlands has placed more people and infrastructure at risk from fire.
Drought and Heat
Wildfires occur at the intersection of dry weather, available fuel, and ignition sources. Historic fire suppression has increased available fuel. Climate change has contributed to changes in weather, the most variable and largest driver of regional burned area, including more severe and widespread droughts and regional humidity variations. In California, vegetation is especially dry after the worst drought in the state’s recorded history, which means both more kindling and less water to draw on to fight fire. The combination of increased heat (last year was the hottest on record in California) and drought (the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides much of California’s water throughout the year, is at 5% of normal) is leading to unusually severe fires.
Climate change is expected to continue to increase fire season severity over the coming decades. According to a Forest Service report, climate change has contributed to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970. Twice as many acres burn today as three decades ago.
The relationship is true in reverse – fires are contributing to climate change by releasing carbon into the atmosphere. In fact, annual fire-induced carbon emissions can exceed 50% of fossil fuel combustion emissions.
The combination of historic suppression of naturally occurring fires and increased heat and drought, both of which are influenced by climate change, have led to more intense and longer fire seasons.
Funding for Fire Control
President Theodore Roosevelt established the U.S. Forest Service over 100 years ago to manage 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. According to the recent August 2015 report by the U.S. Forest Service, ever-increasing costs of fighting fires has been shifting resources away from other aspects of the agency’s mission, such as recreation, restoration, and planning. In 1995, 16% of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget was dedicated to fire. This year, for the first time, more than 50% of the budget will go towards fire. Accordingly, there has been a 39% reduction in all non-fire personnel. The report cautions that
“as more and more of the agency’s resources are spent each year to provide…assets necessary to protect lives, property, and natural resources from catastrophic wildfires, fewer and fewer funds and resources are available to support other agency work – including the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat.”
The underlying shift of funding and human capacity from non-fire programs to support fire programs has real negative implications on the ground. This includes impacts on restoration work that would help prevent fires, watershed protection that provides clean drinking water, protection of cultural resources, and infrastructure and programming for the recreation economy. To solve this problem at the federal management level, the government must change the way it pays for wildfires, treating them like other natural disasters rather than as a normal agency expense. Top administration from the Department of Agriculture, Department of the Interior, and the White House Office of Management and Budget wrote Congress on Tuesday, September 17 after transferring another $250 million towards fighting fires, calling yet again for a change to budgeting for firefighting.
Minimizing the intensity, duration, and impact of fires clearly requires a change in the way the U.S. manages for fire and funds firefighting efforts. And these blazing fires send yet another clear signal for the critical need to mitigate climate change and its negative effects. In light of these critical issues, RNRF will be holding conversations with federal officials and other interested parties to explore the ecological and financial implications of fighting wildland fires in a changing climate.