(TNS) - As the seven-year anniversary of the devastating Fourmile Fire approaches, a new book by a Boulder author advances the proposition that so-called "megafires" have become far more common and for several reasons will likely only become more so.
The book is "Megafire," by Michael Kodas, to be published Aug. 22 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kodas is the deputy director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, defines a "megafire" as a blaze more than 100,000 acres in size, but Kodas doesn't believe it's quite that simple. He believes the Fourmile Fire of September 2010, which claimed 169 structures — but burned a far more modest 6,181 acres — qualifies for the label.
"I kind of came to the personal conclusion that there are lots of small fires that behave differently than they have in the past, and consume or destroy a lot of homes or destroy a lot of the infrastructure we depend on, destroy habitat for endangered species, or kill people, or kill firefighters, that are probably more 'mega' than a fire that destroys 100,000 acres in a remote wilderness, where fires have burned like that forever," Kodas said on Thursday.
"In the sense that it destroyed any number of homes, and it caused all kinds of environmental problems that trickled down to the city of Boulder, the impact of the Fourmile Canyon Fire is definitely mega," he said.
Even using only the strict barometer of 100,000-plus acres as the qualifier, Kodas found that before 1995, the United States averaged one megafire a year. Between 2005 and 2014, the number jumped to 9.8 per year. And, since the 1990s, the federal price tag for fighting such fires leaped from $300 million a year to $3 billion annually.
In the book's prologue, Kodas writes, "I also came to see that despite the size and ferocity of the last decade's fires, the biggest and baddest of them all are still to come."
In 2015, for the first time, wildfires affected more than 10 million acres of U.S. forests.
"Fire scientists anticipate that within a few years, 12 to 15 million acres a year will burn, and U.S. Forest Service researchers warn that by mid-century, that number could reach 20 million — an area nearly the size of Maine," Korda writes.
'Pill' versus 'surgery'
Kodas sees four factors that play into the surge in such fires, which very broadly can be broken down into forest management policies, increased development in the wildlands-urban interface, global warming and political and economic decision-making. He sees some of those factors as irreversible on any immediate basis.
"We've got a century of climate change already built into the system, just from the emissions we have already released," he said in an interview. "I don't think we're going to see a quick reversal of climate change, from any policy we have implemented ... We've got a lot of climate impact coming into our forests. That's in the system, on the conveyer belt, and that's definitely going to arrive."
But he does see some promise in both policy and practice that can both be changed, or improved, to mitigate the damage of future fires. For example, he pointed to the findings of the 2012 Fourmile Canyon Fire study released by the U.S. Forest Service.
"The report showed that some 80 percent of the homes burned from ground fires," he said. "After the fire, there were aerial photos and other studies which showed we had hundreds or thousands of slash piles left lying on the ground" after thinning by government crews or property owners.
"If you don't remove the fuel altogether from the forest, you may be removing the hazard around the house, but you make the ground fires worse. You haven't removed the hazard; you've actually just changed it."
He made the analogy of the difference between treating an illness with surgery versus doing so with a medication.
"A lot of people kind of see those (forest management) activities as surgery, a one-time thing. They think, 'If I just go and cut these trees down ... ' But it's a lot more like taking a pill, as you would take for a chronic illness. You've got to keep working on that. You're probably going to have to do that every year. And if you are not, you are not mitigating the hazard on the level you have to."
As natural as the rain
As a former reporter at the Hartford Courant, now an academic charged with the education of fellow journalists, Kodas — also an instructor at CU — is conscious of the boundaries between strictly objective news writing and advocacy.
"As a journalist, I am a very strong advocate for transparency in government, and I consider myself an advocate for the First Amendment and freedom of the press, and I am an advocate for responsiveness for agencies that use taxpayer dollars in reporting how they spend that money," Kodas said.
He sees "Megafire" as an argument for a wiser use of taxpayer dollars in society's approach to managing a natural phenomenon just about as old as the planet itself.
"I hope it has some influence on everything from the federal government, all the way down to individuals, to rethink how we deal with fire on the landscape," Kodas said, pointing out that fire-prone landscapes now are often some of the more desirable addresses.
"Everybody wants to live in Colorado, on the Front Range," he said. "We've seen this huge population increase throughout the West, and often where the hazards are much greater than the Plains or places like that.
"So yeah, I kind of hope the book would get individuals and governments to think differently about their relationship with wildfire, to recognize that wildfire is as natural to any forest as rain is and that forests need wildfire to be healthy. And as a consequence, we should think of it as a little less as a disaster every time we see smoke rising from the forest."
Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/chasbrennan
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