Here's How To Beat The Heat -- Fight Forest Fires With Fire

Inside 2015's wildfires: “We need to prevent the new normal from being even worse."

Thanks to the brutal fires raging in states like Washington and California, 2015 will go down as one of the most destructive years from wildfires.

Compared with the last 10 years, when there were more than 57,000 fires on average by this point in the year, there have been only 47,000 fires in 2015, according to the Forest Service. But this year's fires have devoured 8.9 million acres, compared with 6.1 million acres on average. This year stands out even more, because 2014 and 2013 were relatively quiet, with below-average numbers of fires and acres burned. 

“So far, by some measures, it’s been one of the worst fire seasons we’ve had,” said Tom Harbour, Forest Service director of fire and aviation management. Harbour, a 45-year veteran of the Forest Service, added: “Fire season is never over anymore. It’s year-round.”

There seems to be smoke everywhere in the West. More acres have burned in Washington state than ever, thanks to enormous fires like the North Star fire, which blackened 218,000 acres through Tuesday. Alaska is emerging from a record-setting season that saw 5.1 million acres go up in smoke. The Valley and Butte fires in northern California destroyed more than 1,000 homes. 

Climactic factors are largely to blame, scientists say. Trees, shrubs and other fuel are ready to burst into flames because of higher temperatures and prolonged periods of drought. California’s been hit with pervasive drought for four years. Who knows which region will next have to pray for rain?

“There’s a future where it looks like we’re going to have an increasing number of large fires that pose a threat to our communities,” said Harbour.

Extinguishing every fire is a strategy that carries enormous costs. This summer, the Forest Service spent $200 million a week battling fires, Oregon TV station KGW reported. 

The Forest Service has reshaped itself as fires have become more severe and more frequent. In 1985, 16 percent of its budget went to fighting fires. This year, fires ate up 52 percent of the budget. Fire personal made up about 25 percent of  Forest Service employees in 1990. Today, they are more than half the workforce.

“They do a great job in fire suppressions. They’re trying to keep people as safe as possible, which is quite remarkable,” said University of California, Berkeley, professor Scott Stephens. He co-authored an article entitled “Reform forest fire management” in Science magazine last week that warned of what would happen if officials didn’t balance fire suppression with controlled burns and thinning dense areas of growth. 

”We’re going to be chasing forest fires in cycles forever,” Stephens said, unless forest fire managers integrate controlled burns and systematic thinning of forests into their repertoire.

To a certain extent, those policies are on the books. They’re just overlooked in favor of suppression, experts said.

It’s not all bad news. Scientists point to strategies that should be emulated across the board. As dire as this year has been, some officials had the foresight to plan for a hot and dry 2015.

Cal Fire, California’s forest fire department, staffed up with additional firefighters earlier than usual this year, thanks to emergency drought measures enacted by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) last year. The department also brought in extra helicopters and other firefighting equipment.

“It’s allowed us to be able to meet the increase in fires,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. “Without a doubt it’s been an extremely busy year.”

Some cities and towns set among tinderbox conditions have taken matters into their own hands as they seek long-term precautions, said the Nature Conservancy’s Christopher Topik.

Several fires over Labor Day 2011 devastated Austin, Texas. To avoid a repeat, the city and surrounding area are trying clear wood that would fuel fires and to eliminate other hazards.

Ashland, Oregon, sits on the edge of a vast forest where fires are frequent. Officials there inform residents of the risks by making door-to-door visits to distribute material and answer questions.

Prescribed burns, or intentionally set fires, are an underused tool for rejuvenating forests, according to fire experts. Many officials worry about losing control of a blaze, though fire managers in the South apparently aren’t as jittery about letting go of a fire. The Ozark National Forest in Arkansas boasts diverse flora, according to Topik, because of success there with controlled burns.

“They never lost the culture of burning,” said Topik, Nature Conservancy’s director of restoring America’s forests. “It’s like a reference on what we want.”

There’s a real risk of, course, that something could go wrong when you’re literally playing with fire.

An infamous example was the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, a controlled burn that ran amok in New Mexico and damaged hundreds of homes. It heightened fears as it burned faculties at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which houses nuclear material. Luckily, no radiation leaked. 

There are actually too many trees these days, according to scientists. Parts of the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are plagued by fires, have 400 big trees per acre, according to Stephens, of UC, Berkeley. A hundred years ago, there were to 50 to 60. Fires spread slower and over less territory in conditions like that. Thinning dense growth ought to be a priority, Stephens and others researchers said.

The Science article writers didn’t acknowledge that these suggestions already formed Forest Service policy, Harbour said. Over the last 10 years, the Forest Service has treated 25 million acres via prescribed burns and restorations to make them more fire-resistant.  That’s out of approximately 200 million acres under Forest Service protection -- a drop in the bucket, according to critics. 

“There are restoration programs going on, but the scale of it is quite limited relative to the need,” said Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington professor and co-author of the Science article.

An unusual controversy broke out after the publication of the article, and the Forest Service distanced itself from the paper, even though it was co-written by Malcolm North, one of their own ecologists.

The Forest Service disapproved of North making policy recommendations. Science added a disclaimer saying the article didn’t reflect official Forest Service positions. The Forest Service didn’t make North available for an interview with The Huffington Post.

This used to be the time of year where federal, state and local firefighters could count on cooler temperatures to help bring raging fires back under control. In a few weeks, higher elevations may even start seeing snow. But the burning season extends deeper into the fall each year.

“We need to prevent the new normal from being even worse,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “We’re dealing with a very different situation.”