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Wildfire Resilience Investment Needs to Be in the Billions

A report by The Nature Conservancy says investment over the next decade needs to be in the neighborhood of $5 billion to $6 billion to mitigate the effects of the number and intensity of wildfires across the country.

Attacking Wildfires
As West Coast fires burned so large and intense this summer that smoke reached the East Coast, a report from The Nature Conservancy says that bold action — to the tune of billions, not millions, of dollars of investment in resiliency and risk reduction — is necessary to mitigate what may be the new normal.

The Bootleg Fire, which started on July 6, has burned more than 400,000 acres of forest as the largest fire on record in Oregon and the largest in the United States so far this year. The Dixie Fire has burned nearly 250,000 acres of California forest. Both are fueled by drought and record heat.

The Bootleg Fire burned so intensely that it created its own weather. “I’m looking at tornado evidence, what appears to be pretty significant indication of tornadic wind speeds from the fire,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Derek Williams from the front lines last Saturday.

James Wallmann, National Interagency Fire Center meteorologist, said that reports of wildfires creating their own weather have increased in recent years. He acknowledged that fire seasons, in general, have become more intense.

“We have documentation that we have been burning more acres over the last 20 years than we did before,” Wallmann said. “You hear firefighters who have been doing it for 30 or 40 years say, ‘I don’t think I’ve seen that before.’”

According to The Nature Conservancy report, federal suppression costs for wildfires have increased by nearly 400 percent, while investments in resilience remained about the same.

“This is a challenge we really can’t talk about in the millions of dollars anymore. We have to start talking in the billions,” said Cecilia Clavet, The Nature Conservancy’s senior policy adviser for forests in North America. “The challenges are big and require a change of thinking and understanding that we just need to match with the funding that’s necessary.”

Those challenges include resilience and risk reduction.

Resilience refers to efforts such as forest thinning and prescribed burning, which yield a landscape that can withstand wildfires. “Resilience is the ability to withstand change,” Clavet said. “So when you have a wildfire come through, it comes through in a more natural way but doesn’t completely obliterate the landscape, and ends up providing some restorative treatments that wildfires can provide.”

Risk reduction involves community action to create defensible space in areas prone to wildfire and ensure that dwellings are hardened for wildfires.

Both resilience and risk reduction need large financial investment to get to where they need to be to keep up with what the report said is some 50 million acres of land across the country that is subject to wildfires. About 20 million of those acres is National Forest Service land; the remaining 30 million belongs to other federal, state, private, tribal and county entities.

There is a long way to go in both areas, and it will take getting everyone to the table. But as daunting as that seems, the incentives of preserving what’s valuable to each may encourage participation, Clavet said. The timber industry doesn’t want to lose its natural resource, sportsman’s groups don’t want to lose theirs and so on. And when the East Coast is smelling smoke from West Coast fires, that sparks interest across the country, Clavet said.

“It impacts everyone. It’s a shared challenge that we all have to deal with, and so while it can be difficult to bring people together, when a challenge like this comes up, it makes it easier because people all want to solve a problem, regardless of why.”

SHOW ME THE MONEY



There are federal programs that already provide support for resilience and risk reduction, including those that focus on hazardous fuels reduction, prescribed fire and other treatments. There are complementary programs that prioritize other activities such as timber production, insect and disease management, and watershed health. And there are ways to increase funding for these and other programs to needed levels.

“It can be done through the normal appropriations process, with appropriators allocating a higher level to these programs," Clavet said, "and having bigger overall budgets so that appropriators can dedicate more funding on an annual basis.”

Other opportunities include funding like the current federal infrastructure plan. “There’s hard infrastructure like roads and bridges, but natural infrastructure also," she explained, "and this type of wildfire resilience is something that helps protect communities and our forest, and it makes sense to invest in them.”
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