Policymakers must prepare for larger blazes -- report
Scott Streater, E&E reporter
Published: Monday, January 18, 2016
Last year's record wildfire season is a harbinger of things to come as the climate warms, necessitating that policymakers and scientists work closely together to adopt strategies to manage and control blazes, according to a report from a group of leading wildfire experts.
Ten scientists mostly from universities across the West have written a joint paper, distributed by the research group Headwaters Economics, touching on seven major issues regarding wildfires that could help better direct resources where they can have the most impact.
Ray Rasker, Headwaters' executive director, is one of the report's authors.
For example, while most of the costs and risks of fighting wildfires are to protect communities and homes in the path of a blaze, "most fire policy and management to date has focused on taming fire risk in relatively undeveloped landscapes," according to the nine-page paper, "Insights From Wildfire Science: A Resource for Fire Policy Discussions."
Instead, more money and effort should go toward funding federal programs that help homeowners protect their properties by using "fire-resistant" landscaping and yard materials, the report says.
"Social science indicates stronger incentives for builders and local governments will create more fire defensible developments that would ultimately reduce costs to taxpayers," it says.
The report notes that San Diego has adopted "strict brush management regulations," and the Flagstaff, Ariz., fire department has a development code designed to protect vulnerable homes in the wildland-urban interface.
The goal of the latest paper is to "contribute useful information that helps promote resilient communities and landscapes facing more fire in years to come," said Tania Schoennagel, a research scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the lead author of the report.
"We live in a fire environment. Large fires have happened; more will burn in the future," said Penelope Morgan, a fire ecologist at the University of Idaho and one of the paper's authors. "Fostering resilience of landscapes and communities facing more fire and smoke depends on effective, informed conversations. Science can help inform effective fire management and policy."
The report comes on the heels of a devastating 2015 wildfire season.
A record-setting 10.1 million acres burned nationwide last year, according to the Department of Agriculture, underscoring how wildfires are becoming larger, more intense and more expensive to extinguish, particularly in the West, where drought conditions and overgrown forests have helped to greatly expand the wildfire season (Greenwire, Jan. 7).
The Department of Agriculture, which released the wildfire numbers earlier this month, said it spent a record $2.6 billion last year on fire suppression costs alone, forcing the Forest Service to once again siphon money away from other agency programs, including many forest health and restoration projects that could help reduce the risks and severity of wildfires.
The size and number of fires are likely to increase, driven by droughtlike conditions and a warming climate, the report says.
"Weather and climate are the primary determinants of the total acreage burned in nearly all western forests, woodlands and shrublands," according to the report. "As the climate continues to warm, our knowledge of the past tells us that more area will burn across the West. Because climate's influence on wildfire is so strong, we are facing an inevitable trend of increasing annual area burned, and will need to learn how to adapt to more wildfire."
The question becomes, how best to adapt to this new reality?
More logging in overgrown forests may not be the answer, the report says.
The enormous ongoing effort to reduce fuel loads on federal lands by "thinning" trees or controlled burns has value, but is expensive and can only do so much to reduce wildfire risks because these programs cannot address private lands.
"We will never be able to treat enough land to alter the trend of increasing acreage burned, but prioritizing federal fuel treatments around communities and creating better mechanisms for reducing fuels on private land can help reduce home loss and better protect communities," the report says.