Chasing Fire: background reading

Chasing Fire: background reading

18 October 2013

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USA —  “Fighting More Forest Fires Will Come Back to Burn Us”, Michael Kodas for On, June 19, 2013

The nation’s investment in fighting wildfires has already increased from some $300 million a year in the early 1990s to as high as $3 billion annually in the past decade, as wildfires have continued to grow larger due to climate change and threaten more property because of increased development. Yet the fire industrial complex argues that the solution is to continue spending more money on firefighting—something some of the best forest ecologists and firefighting experts in the country have told me is the equivalent of burning money, and will only make things worse in the future.

“Even with more modern equipment, with airplanes and helicopters, we can’t stop the fires,” says George Wuerthner, a former National Park Service ranger and editor of the book Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. “I’ve had firefighters tell me, ‘It’s like dumping dollars on the fire.’”

Those dollars are increasingly going to private firms, not local, state, and federal fire crews. “Privatization has changed firefighting, and not for the better,” says Rich Fairbanks, a former fire planner for the U.S. Forest Service and one-time foreman of an elite “hot shot” crew. Private companies supply everything from helicopters and bulldozers to caterers and mobile shower facilities for the fire camps. Most don’t get paid if they’re not actively fighting a fire; consequently, they lobby at the local, regional, and national level to fight as many blazes as they can.

“Experts See New Normal as a Hotter, Drier West Faces More Huge Fires”,David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic, for AP (via, July 1, 2013

One of the deadliest wildfires in a generation vastly expanded Monday to cover more than 8,000 acres, sweeping up sharp slopes through dry scrub and gnarled piñon pines a day after fickle winds and flames killed 19 firefighters.

The gusty monsoon winds where the Colorado Plateau begins to drop off into the Sonoran Desert continued to bedevil about 400 firefighters who were defending 500 homes and 200 businesses in the old gold mining villages of Yarnell and Peeples Valley.

Scientists said those blazes and 15 others that remained unconfined from New Mexico to California and Idaho were part of the new normal — an increasingly hot and dry West, resulting in more catastrophic fires.
While Yarnell is not a new community, and its population remained basically stable between 2000 and 2010, it is representative of the risk involved in the trend around the West for people to move into fire-prone areas in what social scientists call the “wild land-urban interface.”

“Storm cell spelled doom for Arizona firefighters”, Cindy Carcamo, John M. Glionna and Louis Sahagun, July 04, 2013

The 19 firefighters killed this week in a rapidly advancing wildfire were battling to save a small housing subdivision and suddenly were encircled by a dense cloud of smoke and flame, according to officials familiar with the investigation.

“The only thing standing between those folks and those homes were these 19 guys up on that ridge,” said Jeff Knotek, who retired as a captain with the Prescott Fire Department on Sunday and now serves as a liaison to the family of one of the dead firefighters.

“The New World Of Firefighting: Politics, Climate And Humans”, Liz Halloran for NPR, July 07, 2013

Arizona is a virtual case study in the three overarching themes that are driving the global increase in wildfire. Poor forest management — in Arizona’s case, putting out way too many natural fires, resulting in a huge buildup of fuel in the forest. Climate — a recent report shows Arizona warming and drying faster than any other U.S. state. And reckless development — a big migration of population to Arizona has led to rapid expansion of what firefighters call the ‘wildland and urban interface.’

“The West is burning, so what are we going to do about it?”, John N. Maclean for The Chicago Tribune, July 10, 2013

The loss of the 19 Hotshots is another example, and a horrible one, of how wildland fire has become more dangerous and destructive, and likely will get worse in the years ahead. Fire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer. States set new records each year for destruction of property and acreage burned. Many more homeowners and others are in harm’s way. Federal agencies are drawing down fire prevention funds to pay for fire suppression, which means a worse problem in the future.

As historic wildfires raged the past several years, the U.S. Forest Service tilted its budget toward preparedness and suppression — the latter getting a 27 percent increase in the Obama administration’s 2014 budget. Fuel-reduction programs have suffered, however, with funding being reduced in this category by 37 percent, to $201 million.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in May, “Part of the challenge that we face with limited budgets, when you take resources to suppress fires, you sometimes have to take it from the very resources that you would use to restore property or to prevent fires to begin with. And that just basically shifts the risk to a much longer term and more serious risk.”

“The Great Burning: How Wildfires Are Threatening the West”, Osha Gray Davidson, August 1, 2013

The line separating “fire season” from the rest of the year is becoming blurry. A wildfire that began in Colorado in early October continued smoldering into May of this year. Arizona’s first wildfire of 2013 began in February, months ahead of the traditional firefighting season. A year-round fire season may be the new normal. The danger is particularly acute in the Intermountain West, but with drought and record-high temperatures in the Northwest, Midwest, South and Southeast over the past several years, the threat is spreading to the point that few regions can be considered safe.

At a Senate hearing in June, United States Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell testified that the average wildfire today burns twice as many acres as it did 40 years ago. “In 2012, over 9.3 million acres burned in the United States,” he said – an area larger than New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware combined. Tidwell warned that the outlook for this year’s fire season was particularly grave, with nearly 400 million acres – more than double the size of Texas – at a moderate-to-high risk of burning.

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