Reactionary fire policies make the fires burn brighter (and deadlier)

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Fire damage is seen in Mill City, Ore., Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. Diminishing winds and rising humidity helped firefighters battling deadly blazes in Oregon and California, but with dozens of people still missing, authorities in both states feared that the receding flames could reveal many more dead across the blackened landscape. Photo by Gillian Flaccus/AP Photo.

The wildfires have returned to the western United States. This year, the severity has increased beyond prior years. In California, Mendocino county’s August Complex Fire is the biggest fire in Californian history on record. There are many causes for this escalation in the scale of modern fires. Firstly, the “Smokey the Bear” effect. Suppression of fires only makes the inevitable naturally occurring fires more brutal when they do occur. This is because the excess brush and debris feed the fire beyond the natural accumulation where controlled burns have occurred.

Because of this, the National Park Service policy has recently been discouraging controlled burns and fires due to the potential inconvenience or loss of life for people living near the forest. Furthermore, the severity of the fires has forced the government to prioritize fighting fires, rather than preemptive reduction. In fact, according to a document prepared for the United States Department of Agriculture, the Forestry Services estimates that by 2025, 2/3 of its budget will go to fire control. However, this is merely the cost of the efforts to suppress the fire. This does not account for the cost of insurance claims or fire management efforts besides suppressing fires. This renders the fires that do break out more aggressive, fueling a cycle of increasing expenditure on fighting fires rather than preemptive management.

Occasional fires are necessary in a healthy forest environment. In fact, Sequoias, redwoods and lodgepole pines need fires to release seeds and clear the forest of competitors. Tannin in the bark protects old growth sequoias from moderate fires. These protections, however, are limited, and once the fire becomes a crown fire, the trees’ defenses turn into liabilities and the fire becomes stronger.

 The forestry department’s current policy is to mitigate fire and restrict fires to the natural fire cycle, rather than the suppression of all fires. Unfortunately, the current era has focused on triage and treatment, rather than prevention. Thus, fires get worse and the recovery becomes less effective. The long-term survival is sacrificed for the immediate solution. Preventing forest fires from escalating by keeping the environment as close to the natural fire-cycle as possible is deemphasized, and preventing damages once fire strikes is emphasized.  

A similar calculus also plagues California’s water crisis. This was prudent, as ignoring the crisis would have exacerbated it. In fact, since droughts affect forests, the two issues are intimately connected. Dams are not built or repaired during droughts, and thus our drought conditions cannot be solved through storage during wet years. In 2016, this had catastrophic consequences when the Lake Oroville dam collapsed, causing mass evacuations. It had not been renovated since the era of Governor Pat Brown. Since the previous four years were a drought period, the state had prioritized conservation measures over potential problems with dam infrastructure. However, that means when the problem reemerges or the drought ends, a new crisis arises. This patchwork attempt to solve problems, although it fits my reformist inclinations, merely kicks the can to the next year. We need to help people during these fires, but this merely solves the short-term crisis. Wildfires require that we engage in preventive actions like controlled burns, moderate logging and reduced carbon dioxide and methane emissions. These steps would have prevented the tragedies of the modern spat of excessive fires. The drought, heat and uncleared brush created the perfect circumstances for wildfires that spread and spread and spread. Winter on the West Coast is the rainy season and, to paraphrase a famous book series, “Wildfire is coming.”

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