Our wildfire policy paradigm needs a dramatic overhaul. Current wildfire policies are driven by outdated ideas about fire behavior as well as the ignoring the important ecological role of wildfire in maintaining healthy forest ecosystems.
Wildfires are driven by climate/weather conditions. When the right conditions exist – which includes drought, low humidity, high temperatures and wind – you cannot stop a blaze.
It’s critical to understand this simple idea. Climate/weather drives big fires, not fuels.
And until the weather changes, firefighters cannot control a blaze. They are only wasting tax dollars and putting their lives at risk. Typically when the weather does turn, the blazes are destined for self-extinguishment, and only then can we put them out.
Therefore the call for more firefighters and more money to pay for fire-fighting efforts makes as much sense as throwing dollar bills on the blaze for all the good it will do.
What is well-established by scientists is that the larger blazes in the past few decades (however, not more than during previous past major drought period) are the consequence of progressively warmer and drier climate due to human-caused global warming. This has lengthen fire seasons and increased severity of fire weather.
In other words, the conditions that support fire spread and growth have improved. Comparisons with the mid-1900s (roughly 1940 through the 1980s) ignore the fact that for much of that time period, the climate was cooler and moister – thus resistant to large fires. Beginning with 1988 when there were large fires in Yellowstone and other areas of the West, we have seen a shift towards warmer, drier conditions, hence more large blazes.
Furthermore, the flawed presumption that fuel reductions can preclude large fires ignores fire behavior during wind-driven blazes.
During large blazes, wind-blown embers jump over, around, and through fuel reduction projects and fire lines making them largely ineffective.
Demanding more logging to “fire-proof” the forest is a fool’s errand. We can’t predict where a blaze will occur, and thus most fuel reductions are not even in the path of a fire. Furthermore, over time, all fuel reductions decline in effectiveness as trees and shrubs grow back.
The only reasonable response that has been proven to work is to keep people from building in the “fire plain” (analogous to a flood plain) by zoning and to reduce the flammability of existing homes.
Research has demonstrated that fire-wise practices on homes is the most effective means of protecting communities. Reducing fuels in the home ignition zone no more than 200 feet from a structure is all that is needed. Logging the hinterlands miles from homes provides no additional benefits.
We need to adopt a new paradigm for living with wildfire. Protect the home and edge of communities by adopting fire-wise practices, and allow wildfires to assume their important ecological role in rejuvenating forest ecosystems.
Until we change our wildfire paradigm, we will only be wasting tax dollars in a futile efforts to halt unstoppable blazes and putting fire fighters at risk.