Tweak wildfire policies, say forestry profs

Tweak wildfire policies, say forestry profs

8 February 2008

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USA — As wildfires ramp up in Montana and more people move into fire-proneareas, it’s time to tweak the state’s approach to fire policy, two current andone former university forestry professors say.

More emphasis should be placed on protecting communities from wildfires,primarily by preventive work to keep fires from burning too close, and a morehands-off approach should be taken with fires burning away from developed areas,they said in a letter to state legislators.

That would not only save money but would also allow fire, in some places, tocontinue to play the restorative role it has had historically, said the letter,signed by Paul Alaback, a professor of forest ecology at the University ofMontana; Cathy Whitlock, an earth sciences professor at Montana StateUniversity; and Tom DeLuca, a forestry professor at UM for 12 years beforetaking a job with The Wilderness Society in 2006.

The letter was sent to the Legislature’s Fire Suppression Interim Committee,which formed last fall during a special session convened to allocate $82 millionfor firefighting costs.

Fires in Montana last year cost roughly $40 million.

Those costs will only continue to climb if the approach remains the same, DeLucasaid Thursday. “We’re definitely in a climate swing right now ,and we couldsee broad-scale fire occurrences pretty regularly,” he said.

A 2006 study published in the journal Science said Earth’s warming climate ismaking fire seasons longer, more intense and more dramatic in the West,especially in the Northern Rockies.

Since 1986, the average fire season in the West has been 78 days longer than itwas in the 1970s and early 1980s, the study said.

Add that to an increase in the number of people moving into fire-prone areasthat abut forests – about 60 percent of new homes nationwide in the 1990s,according to a federal estimate – and trouble is bound to happen.

Over four of the past seven years, the federal government spent more than $1billion fighting fires, and Montana spent more than $100 million, the professorssaid.

“With the wildland-urban interface likely to grow larger each year inMontana, there will never be enough resources to suppress all fires,” theysaid. “To manage fire and learn to better live with fire, we need to focuson what works.”

That includes continuing the initial attack to put out 98 percent of new fireswithin hours last year.

But it also includes continued effort to safeguard homes and communities,including use of fire-resistant materials in construction, landscaping withless-flammable plants and keeping firewood, trees and other burnable items awayfrom homes.

“That’s where we’re going to get the most bang for our buck,” DeLucasaid.

Allowing some fires to burn that are away from developed areas can also savemoney and manpower, they said. The savings come immediately in reducingfirefighting expenses and also in the long run because more regular fires keepfuels from accumulating and exploding into large-scale blazes.

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