USA — Not since the turn of the last century have wildfires been worse in much of the West. Over the past several years, the onset of drought, the deteriorated condition of many Western forests, and a surge of largely unconstrained growth at the wildland-urban interface have converged, resulting in catastrophic, record-setting wildfires.
On a growing number of wildfires, we are past the limits of firefighting effectiveness and beyond the margins of firefighter safety. We seem to be crossing an important threshold, in terms of acceptable loss.
When we look back at the recent highest-cost, highest-loss wildfires in Montana and the West, several observations deserve our attention:
Most acres burned on the highest consequence wildfires have occurred in the drier forest types, where the exclusion of periodic low-intensity burning has resulted in high fuel buildups over broad landscapes. These forests are often at lower elevations, where people and homes are concentrated. These same forests, 100 years ago, were more open, had lower fuel loads, and exhibited less severe fire intensities than we see today.
Several past high intensity wildfires were in areas where land/resource management plans called for undisturbed, dense conditions. Fuel reduction treatments only occurred at very small scales or not at all. Management practices that worked well in a relatively cooler, wetter cycle may no longer be sustainable as the climate shifts to hotter and drier conditions. In fact, these practices, left unchanged, may only imperil the very values that they intend to save.
Within the perimeter of many high-impact wildfires, there were small areas where understory thinning and/or prescribed burning preceded the wildfire. Despite the severe burning conditions that consumed much of the forest, these areas came through largely unscathed. Although they were relatively small-sized, forest resilience was enhanced by these treatments where they occurred.
We are at an important crossroads. Do we attempt to match increasing wildfire threats with yet greater suppression force or do we take stock, adapt to a changed circumstance, and modify our wildfire protection strategies? Some important questions beg an answer:
Should wildfires continue to be treated as unavoidable accidents of nature, exempt from scrutiny and evaluation? As droughts deepen, leaving high volumes of fuel on fire-prone landscapes promises much greater consequence.
Can we mitigate fuel hazards at the scales necessary to reduce high-impact wildfire threats under existing regulatory constraints?
Can critical natural resource values (watersheds, endangered species habitat, air quality, and others) be sustained without optimizing fires role and use at more meaningful scales, appropriate intensities and intervals?
Should landowners freedom to build where and how they want occur at the expense of public lands, firefighter safety, their own security, and cost to taxpayers? What are the long-term effects of protecting homes at the expense of natural resources?
In an era where federal budget deficit reduction efforts need to occur, should we go all-in with suppression capacity, or should greater priority be given to prevention and hazard mitigation?
As much of the West continues to move into a hotter, drier climate cycle, the need intensifies to adapt regulations, policies, plans and practices to a new reality. Perhaps it is time to pause and much like we ask of our firefighters re-assess the situation before we go much further.