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Fire Watchers Fear This Is Just the Beginning of a New Normal

Last week, Americans saw it happen again. No one’s given a name to the conflagration that incinerated almost 5 million acres of California, Oregon and Washington just in the last week and filled the skies with smoke.

by Rob Chaney, Missoulian, Mont. / September 21, 2020
In this file photo, Firefighters monitor a controlled burn as they work to contain the spread of the Maria fire in Santa Paula, CA, on Nov. 1, 2019. Fire authorities are growing increasingly concerned over their ability to muster a large, healthy force of firefighters in the face of COVID-19. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS) TNS
(TNS) - The Great Burn of 110 years ago saw 1,700 fires across Montana, Idaho and Washington combine into one catastrophe scorching more than 3 million acres. It destroyed whole towns and killed dozens of people.
 
Last week, Americans saw it happen again. No one’s given a name to the conflagration that incinerated almost 5 million acres of California, Oregon and Washington just in the last week, and filled Missoula skies with smoke.
 
For fire scientists like Philip Higuera, this could be the new normal.
 
“We’ve been spared one of these fire catastrophes so far,” said Higuera, an associate professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana. “But with climate change happening, priming all the vegetation for rapid burning, each summer we’re rolling the dice for the combination of events to have a true fire catastrophe.”
 
Last week, four West Coast cities ranked in the world’s top-10 for worst air pollution. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared summer 2020 the hottest on record for the Northern Hemisphere, and the whole year will likely rank in the top-five for high average temperature.
 
Those general conditions have combined with some unusual ones. California is well-accustomed to the Santa Ana winds driving its fire season, but not this early in the year. And they’re usually negligible farther north, until last week when they contributed to the massive wildfire breakouts in Oregon and Washington. The turbulent skies prompted the U.S. Weather Service to issue its almost unheard-of “fire tornado” warning on Aug. 15 in Northern California.
 
“Across Oregon and Washington this year, 1.5 million acres burned, and about half of that came in the last week,” Higuera said. “The shocking part is, in comparison the whole 2017 season in Montana burned 1.4 million acres.”
 
And 2017 was a notably bad year for Montana. It included the 160,000-acre Rice Ridge fire that threatened Seeley Lake, and the Lolo Peak fire that ran seven miles in seven hours to the edge of Lolo’s townsite.
 
The 1910 Great Burn has been widely credited with giving the U.S. Forest Service its identity and authority as manager and protector of America’s public forests. But the agency’s 20th century attempts to save lives and trees misunderstood the role of fire on the western North American landscape.
 
Americans are not alone. Similar climactic and management decisions in Australia have produced increasingly dramatic fire years, with July 2019-February 2020 seeing 13 million acres burn Down Under after record-breaking heatwaves. Mark Finney, a research forester at the Forest Service Fire Sciences Laboratory, said his colleagues around the world have been watching the trends with alarm.
 
“If COVID-19 hadn’t happened, we’d all be reflecting on the disaster in Australia,” Finney said. “The scary thing about that for me is, the same thing can happen here. Why? Because we’re doing the same things, and not doing the same things, in our approach to fire that the Australians are. We both have fire-dependent ecosystems, but our approach is reactive, waiting for fires to start and then doing something. We have very little invested in trying to preempt these disasters, even though we have tremendous science and potential to do that.”
 
During his stopover in California last week, President Donald Trump criticized California officials for poor “forest management” as he toured burned areas with Gov. Gavin Newsom. He ran into a storm of pushback from officials and scientists detailing the progressively hotter and drier climate conditions that have made fire seasons more destructive. Trump also overlooked the fact that the federal government has responsibility for 53 percent of California’s forests, while the state oversees just 3 percent. Human-caused climate change “caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s, and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984,” according to a 2016 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
 
That’s not to say forest management doesn’t play a role in protecting people from wildfire. Thinning forests by removing small-diameter, non-commercial trees can also reduce the chance a fire will grow to drastic size. But such wood doesn’t pay its way out of the woods, as it’s too small to make lumber and the market for chips and pulp is limited.
 
Commercial logging does pay for itself, and provides local jobs as well as road networks into forest areas that firefighters can use. However, research studies have shown logged areas and young forest plantation projects have little beneficial effect on wildfire spread and can actually aggravate fire growth in some cases. And while road access may help deliver firefighting resources to a site, the logging does not pay for long-term road maintenance and can contribute to environmental degradation that hurts hunting and fishing and habitat qualities. More roads also lead to more backcountry human fire-starts.
 
At the most basic level, forest treatment means burning more acres of fire-prone landscape at times of the year when the burn isn’t likely to get out of control or send up excessive amounts of smoke. While all fires smoke, a prescribed burn in spring or fall produces about a tenth as much toxic fumes as an out-of-control summer wildfire.
 
“We’re not going to be able to use harvesting and other mechanical means without using fire,” Finney said. “If the collateral goal is fire protection, we’re going to have to use fire. It’s the only thing that removes the fuel component that wildfires depend on.
 
“The question is, is it time for a real introspection of the way we manage fire or don’t manage it,” Finney said. “Often it takes some kind of crisis or catastrophe to catalyze the discussion. These have been discussed perpetually by people in the fire business. These kinds of events haven’t been ignored.”
 
As he looks at the smoky Missoula sky, Higuera focuses on two horizons.
 
“On the longer time scale,” he said, “fires highlight the importance of addressing anthropogenic climate change. That’s the biggest contributing factor to the duration and frequency of droughts, which prime the landscape for rapid fire spread.
 
“But in the short term, the most immediate thing we can do is be extremely careful with ignitions, particularly during red flag warnings. Missoula is doing a lot of great things planning for wildfire. People know about firewise practices like taking care of the vegetation around your house and doing fuels-reduction treatments. But under the most extreme fire-weather wind events, we need to think on a different level. We need to think about things like — do we need to shut off power lines going across Mt. Sentinel and Mt. Jumbo?
 
“Look at California and Oregon — the communities experiencing things before us. They’re shutting down the power grid. That comes with important impacts on humans. The hospital has to know about that. It can have a disproportional impact on people without economic means. We need to be thinking about ways we respond to events differently than we have in the past. The context is different.”
 
Last week, Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines teamed with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein to push their Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act (S.4431). The bill calls for more prescribed burning and faster permitting of logging projects in Forest Service lands. But the Forest Service still faces an environment where it puts out 98% of its blazes on initial attack, but the remaining 2% turn into the catastrophic megafires that currently darken Missoula’s skies.
 
“At the rate things are going, I don’t think we’ve seen our worst fire season yet, unless we do something different,” Finney said. “The solution, for many people, is we need more fire in order to have less severe fire.
 
“When people hear they need more fire on landscape, that takes a shift in perspective,” Finney added. “It may take 10, 20 or more years to dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into. You can’t get there unless you start, and we haven’t started.”
 
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