Fresh Ideas: Let’s be honest about wildfires
September 12, 2018
In early July, the Martin Fire north of Winnemucca became the largest wildfire ever in Nevada, burning 435,569 acres before it was contained. The fire burned parts of Paradise Valley's historic 96 Ranch, as well as extensively damaging ecosystems.
And then there were the California fires later in July and August, blanketing our region in thick smoke. By mid-August, 2018 wildfires had burned more than 1,201,680 acres of California. That's about as big as the ENTIRE state of Delaware.
In August alone, 1,650,950 acres burned in British Columbia.
While some other factors contribute to the increased severity of wildfires and the longer wildfire seasons, the connection between climate change and fires is clear. The higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt we now are seeing cause soils and vegetation to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought, lengthening the fire season, and contributing to larger, hotter fires. This is the effect of climate change in the West — happening right now.
What are the other factors that contribute to larger, hotter, more dangerous fires?
Historic land management practices play a big part. Remember Smokey Bear? Smokey, an advertising icon created by the U.S. Forest Service in 1947, was the face of the fire suppression policies of federal and state land management agencies and the forestry industry. Wildfires were seen as unnatural disruptions of the forest ecosystem — and they burned valuable timber.
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In reality, periodic fires are an integral part of healthy forest ecosystems in the West: our forests and other western ecosystems have evolved with fire. Years of fire suppression in the 20th century have led to ecosystems in which large quantities of flammable organic matter has accumulated, so when a fire eventually comes along, there's more to burn and bigger, more destructive fires result.
With population growth in the west and the preference of many for living on the edge of town in a more rural setting, there are simply more people and property in fire-prone areas. Scattered development on the edge is harder to protect when a fire comes along, so homes and lives are lost.
All of this makes sense, and all of this can be addressed. While it's a challenge, we could cut our carbon emissions through a variety of means, and slow climate disruption.
Land management agencies have already moved beyond the fire suppression policies of earlier years. If properly funded — a big if under the current administration in Washington — fuels management and landscape restoration could go a long way toward limiting wildfire damage and restoring healthy forest ecosystems.
Western communities could enact land use regulations to control urban growth that sprawls into the urban-wildland interface. Communities could proactively plan how to protect themselves from fire. Carson City, for example, completed a Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2009 that analyzes fire hazard neighborhood by neighborhood, and gives recommendations how to reduce fuel hazards on public and private property.
What doesn't make sense to me is the way the wildfires of the west are being politicized.
In an odd column about wildfire recently in the Reno Gazette Journal, Sam Kumar began talking about how many dead trees there are in California and ended up making a totally unrelated assertion about how the state of California is spending too much money on high speed rail.
Then there's the mysterious tweet by our president: "California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren't allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized."
Umm — nope. This seems to be the tactic of conservatives — they start talking about fires and end up blaming their chief scapegoats — environmentalists and government regulation — for them.
We can expect our president knows nothing about wildfire in the west since he's a city boy born and bred, but what about his Secretary of the Interior who hails from Montana?
In a recent interview with Breitbart Radio, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed "environmental terrorist groups" for California's huge wildfires.
"We have been held hostage by these environmental terrorist groups that have not allowed public access — that have refused to allow (the) harvest of timber," said Zinke.
Umm — nope again. This is not a helpful or useful thing for our Secretary of the Interior to say — and I'm embarrassed one of our nation's top resource management officials would use this summer's expensive and catastrophic fires as an excuse to make political hay.
He should know better. Wildfires are increasing in the American West, mostly due to climate change, and are threatening our ecosystems, our health, and our safety. Wouldn't adequately funding landscape restoration to reestablish more fire-resilient landscapes; figuring out how we westerners can live in fire-prone landscapes; and — yes — limiting the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate disruption, be much more useful than just making silly statements and searching for scapegoats?
Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change in Nevada at nevadanscleanenergy.org.