A Perfect Storm Of Factors Is Making Wildfires Bigger And More Expensive To Control

A Perfect Storm Of Factors Is Making Wildfires Bigger And More Expensive To ControlThe Carr Fire tears through Shasta, California, July 26, 2018. AP Photo/Noah Berger Cassandra Moseley, University of Oregon

Hopes for fewer large wildfires in 2018, after last year’s disastrous fire season, are rapidly disappearing across the West. Six deaths have been reported in Northern California’s Carr Fire, including two firefighters. Fires have scorched Yosemite, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Sequoia and Grand Canyon national parks. A blaze in June forced Colorado to shut down the San Juan National Forest. So far this year, 4.6 million acres have burned nationwide – less than last year, but well above the 10-year average of 3.7 million acres at this date.

These active wildfire years also mean higher firefighting costs. For my research on natural resource management and rural economic development, I work frequently with the U.S. Forest Service, which does most federal firefighting. Rising fire suppression costs over the past three decades have nearly destroyed the agency’s budget. Its overall funding has been flat for decades, while fire suppression costs have grown dramatically.

Earlier this year Congress passed a “fire funding fix” that changes the way in which the federal government will pay for large fires during expensive fire seasons. But it doesn’t affect the factors that are making fire suppression more costly, such as climate trends and more people living in fire prone landscapes.

A Perfect Storm Of Factors Is Making Wildfires Bigger And More Expensive To ControlAnnual wildfire-burned area (in millions of acres), 1983 to 2015. The Forest Service stopped collecting statistics in 1997. National Interagency Fire Center

More burn days, more fuel

What is driving this trend? Many factors have come together to create a perfect storm. They include climate change, past forest and fire management practices, housing development, increased focus on community protection and the professionalization of wildfire management.

Fire seasons are growing longer in the United States and worldwide. According to the Forest Service, climate change has expanded the wildfire season by an average of 78 days per year since 1970. This means agencies need to keep seasonal employees on their payrolls longer and have contractors standing by earlier and available to work later in the year. All of this adds to costs, even in low fire years.

In many parts of the wildfire-prone West, decades of fire suppression combined with historic logging patterns have created small, dense forest stands that are more vulnerable to large wildfires. In fact, many areas have fire deficits – significantly less fire than we would expect given current climatic and forest conditions. Fire suppression in these areas only delays the inevitable. When fires do get away from firefighters, they are more severe because of the accumulation of small trees and brush.

A Perfect Storm Of Factors Is Making Wildfires Bigger And More Expensive To ControlBlue areas on this map experienced fire deficits (less area burned than expected) between 1994 and 2012. Red areas had fire surpluses (more area burned than expected), while yellow areas were roughly normal. Parks et al., 2015, https://doi.org/10.1890/ES15-00294.1, CC BY

Protecting communities and forests

In recent decades, development has pushed into areas with fire-prone ecosystems – the wildland-urban interface. In response, the Forest Service has shifted its priorities from protecting timber resources to trying to keep fire from reaching houses and other physical infrastructure.

Fires near communities are fraught with political pressure and complex interactions with state and local fire and public safety agencies. They put enormous pressure on the Forest Service to do whatever is possible to suppress fires. There is considerable impetus to use air tankers and helicopters, although these resources are expensive and only effective in a limited number of circumstances.

As it started to prioritize protecting communities in the late 1980s, the Forest Service also ended its policy of fully suppressing all wildfires. Now fires are managed using a multiplicity of objectives and tactics, ranging from full suppression to allowing fires to grow larger so long as they stay within desired ranges.

This shift requires more and better-trained personnel and more interagency coordination. It also means letting some fires grow bigger, which requires personnel to monitor the blazes even when they stay within acceptable limits. Moving away from full suppression and increasing prescribed fire is controversial, but many scientists believe it will produce long-term ecological, public safety and financial benefits.

A Perfect Storm Of Factors Is Making Wildfires Bigger And More Expensive To ControlSuburban and exurban development has pushed into many fire-prone wild areas. USFS, CC BY-ND

Professionalizing wildfire response

As fire seasons lengthened and staffing for the national forest system declined, the Forest Service was less and less able to use national forest employees as a militia whose regular jobs could be set aside for brief periods for firefighting. Instead, it started to hire staff dedicated exclusively to wildfire management and use private-sector contractors for fire suppression.

There is little research on the costs of this transition, but hiring more dedicated professional fire staffers and a large contractor pool is probably more expensive than the Forest Service’s earlier model. However, as the agency’s workforce shrank by 20,000 between 1980 and the early 2010s and fire seasons expanded, it had little choice but to transform its fire organization.

A Perfect Storm Of Factors Is Making Wildfires Bigger And More Expensive To ControlIn six of the past 10 years, wildfire activities have consumes at least half of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual budget. CRS

Baked-in fire risks

Many of these drivers are beyond the Forest Service’s control. Climate change, the fire deficit on many western lands and development in the wildland-urban interface ensure that the potential for major fires is baked into the system for decades to come.

There are some options for reducing risks and managing costs. Public land managers and forest landowners may be able to influence fire behavior in certain settings with techniques such as hazardous fuels reduction and prescribed fire. But these strategies will further increase costs in the short and medium term.

Another cost-saving strategy would be to rethink how firefighters use expensive resources such as airplanes and helicopters. But it will require political courage for the Forest Service to not use expensive resources on high-profile wildfires when they may not be effective.

Even if these approaches work, they will likely only slow the rate of increase in costs. Wildfire fighting costs now consume more than half of the agency’s budget. This is a problem because it reduces funds for national forest management, research and development, and support for state and private forestry. Over the long term, these are the very activities that are needed to address the growing problem of wildfire.

About The Author

Cassandra Moseley, Associate Vice President for Research and Research Professor, University of Oregon

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related Books

List Price: $27.00
Sale Price: $27.00 $18.74 You save: $8.26


List Price: $23.00
Sale Price: $23.00 $17.37 You save: $5.63


List Price: $21.99
Sale Price: $21.99 $14.95 You save: $7.04


enafarzh-CNzh-TWnltlfrdehiiditjakomsfaptruesswsvthtrurvi

EVIDENCE

Siberia: The Melting Permafrost
by Arte Documentary
Russian geophysicist Sergei Zimov together with his son Nikita want to prevent the permafrost from thawing due to…
Two Centuries Of Continuous Volcanic Eruption May Have Triggered The End Of The Ice Age
Two Centuries Of Continuous Volcanic Eruption May Have Triggered The End Of The Ice Age
by Joe McConnell
Around 25,000 years ago, during a period known as the Last Glacial Maximum, ice covered much of the world’s landmasses.
Solar Weather Has Real, Material Effects On Earth
Solar Weather Has Real, Material Effects On Earth
by Michael Batu
On Sep. 1, 1859, solar astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed sunspots that suddenly and briefly flashed brightly…
How Ice Cores Shape Our Understanding Of Ancient Climate
How Ice Cores Shape Our Understanding Of Ancient Climate
by Tas van Ommen
It is just over 50 years since French scientist Claude Lorius dropped some glacier ice in his whisky and started a…
How Humans Derailed The Earth's Climate In Just 160 Years
How Humans Derailed The Earth's Climate In Just 160 Years
by Guillaume Paris and Pierre-Henri Blard
Climate change might be the most urgent issue of our day, both politically and in terms of life on Earth. There is…
Why Climate Change Won't Be Solved Easily
by Thom Hartmann Program
Solutions for Climate Change are going to have to be much more radical and much more powerful than the solutions we…
Ice Melt In Greenland And Antarctica Predicted To Bring More Frequent Extreme Weather
Ice Melt In Greenland And Antarctica Predicted To Bring More Frequent Extreme Weather
by Nick Golledge
Last week, rivers froze over in Chicago when it got colder than at the North Pole. At the same time, temperatures hit…
How Solar Heat Drives Rapid Melting Of Parts Of Antarctica's Largest Ice Shelf
How Solar Heat Drives Rapid Melting Of Parts Of Antarctica's Largest Ice Shelf
by Craig Stewart
The ocean that surrounds Antarctica plays a crucial role in regulating the mass balance of the continent’s ice cover.

LATEST VIDEOS

Climate Change Is Making Some Homes Uninsurable
by CBC News
Climate change has fundamentally changed the nature of the risk for homeowners and insurance companies alike.
Siberia: The Melting Permafrost
by Arte Documentary
Russian geophysicist Sergei Zimov together with his son Nikita want to prevent the permafrost from thawing due to…
South Africa: Cities Without Water
by DW Documentaries
By the year 2050, a quarter of the every world’s cities will be facing water shortages. Cape Town is already running…
Pumped Dry: The Global Crisis of Vanishing Groundwater
by USA TODAY
In places around the world, supplies of groundwater are rapidly vanishing. As aquifers decline and wells begin to go…
Why Climate Change Won't Be Solved Easily
by Thom Hartmann Program
Solutions for Climate Change are going to have to be much more radical and much more powerful than the solutions we…
The Counter-Intuitive Solution To Getting People To Care About Climate Change
The Counter-Intuitive Solution To Getting People To Care About Climate Change
by Kamyar Razavi
In a May episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Bill Nye the Science Guy took a blowtorch to a miniature globe.…
5 Ways To Be A Responsible Wildlife Tourist
5 Ways To Be A Responsible Wildlife Tourist
by Tracie McKinney
Imagine walking through a lush tropical forest. You hear a rustle overhead, and a half-eaten fruit plops onto the…

LATEST ARTICLES

Climate Change Is Making Some Homes Uninsurable
by CBC News
Climate change has fundamentally changed the nature of the risk for homeowners and insurance companies alike.
Extinction Rebellion Uses Tactics That Toppled Dictators – But We Live In A Liberal Democracy
Extinction Rebellion Uses Tactics That Toppled Dictators – But We Live In A Liberal Democracy
by Oscar Berglund
After occupying parts of central London over two weeks in April, Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) summer uprising has now…
Heat Stroke: A Doctor Offers Tips To Stay Safe As Temperatures Soar
Heat Stroke: A Doctor Offers Tips To Stay Safe As Temperatures Soar
by Gabriel Neal
I easily remember laughing at Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Road Runner while watching Saturday morning cartoons…
Siberia: The Melting Permafrost
by Arte Documentary
Russian geophysicist Sergei Zimov together with his son Nikita want to prevent the permafrost from thawing due to…
Refugee Corals Move To Escape Warming Seas
Refugee Corals Move To Escape Warming Seas
by U. Washington
Coral reefs are retreating from equatorial waters and establishing new reefs in more temperate regions, a new study…
How Israel Became A Leader In Water Use In The Middle East
by PBS NewsHour
Over the past few years in Israel, the country's water shortage has become a surplus. Through a combination of…
As Tundras Warm, Microbes Could Make Climate Change Worse
As Tundras Warm, Microbes Could Make Climate Change Worse
by John Toon
Rising temperatures in the tundra of the Earth’s northern latitudes could affect microbial communities in ways likely…
South Africa's Carbon Tax Matters -- For The Economy And Tackling Climate Change
South Africa's Carbon Tax Matters -- For The Economy And Tackling Climate Change
by Mmatlou Kalaba and Heinrich Bohlmann
Carbon tax is likely to be an effective way of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, which lead to climate change and…