USA — A “perfect storm” of conditions favoring destructivewildfires threatens to push the nation’s firefighting capacity toward thebreaking point, top federal fire officials have warned Interior Secretary DirkKempthorne.
More and more people live in and near flammable forests but are not acting toprotect their homes from wildfires because they expect fire crews to rush totheir rescue, the officials said.
At the same time, they told Kempthorne, the risk of catastrophic fires is rising.Forests are increasingly overgrown, the climate is getting warmer and drier, andthe government is running short of money to employ firefighters.
Forest thinning efforts promoted by federal land agencies and the Bushadministration are not keeping pace with the buildup of tinder.
Their unusually direct warning, in a one-page memo prepared at Kempthorne’srequest and obtained by The Oregonian of Portland, Ore., came shortly after fiveU.S. Forest Service firefighters died late last month in Southern Californiawhile trying to save a home from wind-driven flames.
Although the deaths did not prompt the memo, “it makes the reality of whatwe’re talking about that much more intense,” said Tom Boatner, head of thegroup of fire officials that wrote it.
A record 9.4 million acres burned this year across the country, surpassing theprevious record of 8.7 million acres that burned in 2005, and all signs suggestthe trend will continue. More severe fires are likely to threaten more homes.
“Five of the 10 worst seasons since 1960 in terms of acres burned haveoccurred in the last seven years,” said the memo to Kempthorne from theNational Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, which directs firefighting crews andequipment from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
If wildfires burn at the same pace next year as they did this year, thefirefighting budget will be exhausted by July, the U.S. Forest Service said.Fire managers increasingly must let some fires burn so they can send crews tofight others.
“Current trends related to wildland fire management are leading toward `perfectstorm’ conditions” that will severely test the nation’s firefightingcapacity, the fire managers said. Specifically, they told Kempthorne:
— Half of all new homes built nationwide in the last 10 years have gone up inor next to fire-prone forests or other wildlands, and retiring baby boomers arelikely to move into such areas in rising numbers.
— Despite aggressive efforts to remove fuel for fires by thinning overgrowntimber, “the accumulation of fuels often outpaces the ability to reducethem” and to keep them reduced.
— Although wildfire poses obvious risks to homes, “most homeowners fail totake the necessary measures to better protect their property,” the fireleaders wrote. “This lack of involvement is likely driven by an expectationthat firefighters will always be there when needed.”
More and more homes scattered across fire-prone land complicates firefighting byputting fire crews in riskier situations as they try to protect private property.
Climate studies predict that the West will grow warmer and drier, making forestsmore flammable and blazes more dangerous and unpredictable. The period fromJanuary to August of this year was the hottest on record, the fire managers toldKempthorne.
As fires burn more land, the cost of fighting them increases. Federalfirefighting costs have topped $1 billion in four of the last seven years.
Federal agencies are hiring fewer firefighters, or employing them for shorterseasons, as inflation erodes their budgets.
Fire crews increasingly have been pulled away to help with other disasters suchas hurricanes.
Each factor may not be remarkable by itself, but together they add up to longerodds and higher stakes for the nation’s firefighting apparatus.
“It’s a fairly amazing collection of trends that potentially put us in verydifficult fire situations in the future,” Boatner said.
Nina Rose Hatfield, deputy assistant secretary of the interior, said in aninterview that federal leaders are working to deal with the issues the fireofficials outlined.
The government is spending its money on thinning where it will do the most good,such as around homes and other property, she said. It’s also investing inequipment and training for local agencies that can reach fires fast, before theyblow out of control.
She praised the skill of fire forces in identifying the most threatening blazesthat demand rapid responses and others that might be allowed to burn.
Meanwhile, fire scientists last week cautioned that global warming will compoundalready worsening fire conditions.
“Fire suppression costs may continue to increase, with decreasingeffectiveness under extreme fire weather and fuel conditions,” says adeclaration passed at a San Diego meeting of the Association for Fire Ecologythat drew more than 1,000 scientists from around the world. “Extreme fireevents are likely to occur more frequently.”
Fire seasons once limited to the summer may extend over nearly the whole year aswarmer temperatures allow blazes to ignite earlier and burn later, said TimothyIngalsbee, a fire ecologist from Eugene, Ore., who is secretary of theassociation.
“It’s going to force a radical rethinking of our whole approach to wildlandfire,” he said. “We couldn’t fight them all if we wanted to.”
The public must begin to accept the idea that not all fires can be fought asintensely as they once were, officials said.
Although there is greater public understanding about the ecological benefits offires, which help clear undergrowth from drier forests, there is not alwayssupport for letting them burn, he said.
“The tolerance for letting some fires burn and putting smoke in the air ishigher, but it tends to be higher when it’s not in your backyard,” he said.
But fire crews see benefits when fires do burn. Past blazes allowed to burn inremote wilderness areas broke up fuels there, so fires there turn out lesssevere today, Boatner said.