USA — Bad management and climate change have turned our forests into tinderboxes and exhausted firefighting budgets. But we keep on building homes in the woods.
On the internet, you can still watch the flames race down dry eastern Washington hillsides toward wood frame houses and see the charred, gray ruins of what used to be downtown Pateros. A whole lot of (barbecued) chickens came home to roost this year: Last summer’s Carleton Complex fire was the largest in state history, eclipsing though not by much the 1902 Yacolt Burn, which torched forests in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania counties, farther south, and raised local fears that Mount St. Helens or Mount Rainier was erupting. In the month after lightning ignited the Carleton fire on July 14 (Bastille Day), the blaze burned 256,000-odd acres and destroyed 325 homes. The hundreds of people whose houses and businesses went up in smoke, many of them un- or under-insured, have been told to expect no help from FEMA.
At least 20 other significant fires burned in eastern Washington and Oregon last summer. In California, the state’s entire fiscal year firefighting budget has already been spent, with the historically-worst months for wildfires just beginning. In the U.S. as a whole, wildfire ravages some 5 million acres annually, and the cost of those fires has more than quintupled in the past 20 years. “We’ve kind of gotten used to” big fires, says University of Washington affiliate professor of environmental and forest sciences David Peterson, who leads the fire and environmental research applications team at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory. “It’s the new normal.”
What’s going on? Imagine you want to build a campfire. You take big logs with thick bark and lay them out carefully so that no two logs are touching. Light a match. And hope the kids don’t look forward to toasting marshmallows any time soon. Or try again. Pile up a lot of dry kindling. Then lay a bunch of smaller logs on top of it, making sure the logs are all touching each other. Light another match. And step back. Quickly.
Now assume you’ve started that second fire on dry grass right up against your home’s cedar-shingled walls. You might want to dial 911.
Sure, that’s oversimplified, but it has basically happened in a lot of our eastside forests. Thanks to generations of selectively removing big, fire-resistant, commercially-valuable Ponderosa pines a process known as “high grading” and suppressing or discouraging Native Americans from setting the small fires that would have cleared out saplings and underbrush, we have lots of kindling on the forest floor, lots of small trees crowded together, lots of dead and bug-weakened trees drying in the summer sun. And now, in many places, we also have lots of houses standing among the dessicated pines, right in harm’s way.
“The six worst fire seasons since 1960 have occurred since 2000,” Headwaters Economics observed in a recent report. “Bigger wildfires are generally the result of two factors.” One is that we have basically stockpiled fuel on the forest floor. Now, adds Peterson, “we’re sort of catching up for the debt [of unburned fuel] we have to pay.”
The second factor is the result of stockpiling carbon in the atmosphere, which has altered the climate. Snow melts off earlier in the year now. That means spring growth, which ultimately becomes summer tinder, happens sooner, and whole landscapes dry out earlier in the year.
We’d better get used to it. “It’s getting harder and harder to write this off as a bad year,” says Reese Lolley, the Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Washington forest projects director and chair of the Washington Prescribed Forest Council. Historically, “we’ve had a 5-month fire season.” But with climate change driving an earlier snowmelt, “we’re looking at 7 months.” In other words, the fire season expands by 40 percent. It lasts more than half the year. Expect more stuff to burn. Lolley says scientists now forecast that within the next 40 years, the acreage that burns annually will double.