Guest post by David L. Auchterlonie and Jeffrey A. Lehman, Co-authors of Running Out of Time: Wildfires and Our Imperiled Forests
The smoke from Canada’s June 2023 fires affected 68,000,000 people living in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states. The smoke from those wildfires gave people in those states a taste of what the western states have experienced every year over the past five decades. Welcome to the world of canceled flights, canceled business, social events, and shutdowns of schools and businesses.
Why? The policy of the agencies involved in fighting wildfires, especially here in the United States, must deal with “old” policies, a patchwork of complex laws, ordinances and regulations that make putting out wildfires more difficult. Lawsuits abound. While amending and changing those laws, we need to focus on the real problem of wildfires.
The call for a decision to “Put the Fire Out” policy should ring throughout Washington. Putting the fire out is the first step in solving the horrendous, annual, destructive wildfires that burn throughout the United States. These fires have been allowed to wreak havoc for decades!
The worst of wildfires is the side-effect of inhaling carcinogenic particles contained in the smoke. A 2012 study sponsored by the National Institute of Health estimates that globally over 300,000 deaths result each year because of wildfire smoke. And we know wildfire events since that time have become larger and more intense making that grim estimate conservative.
The population of the east coast and mid-Atlantic states can expect more wildfire smoke. A 40,000-acre wildfire burned the forests of western North Carolina, adding another dimension to this conversation. Canada’s Natural Resources fire agency predicts severe fire weather conditions in July and August in virtually all its provinces bordering the US. The US National Interagency Fire Center also forecasts a high risk of large, long-duration wildfires again this season The season now begins in March and continues through November. Each year an average of 7.4 million acres (about the size of Massachusetts) have been consumed by wildfires.
Why are wildfire seasons now running longer with higher-intensity wildfires? According to a 2019 GAO report, 100 million acres of US forests (about the size of California) have been under-managed by the federal agencies responsible. The forests can be likened to you starting a fire in your fireplace; you need kindling, bigger pieces of wood to get the fire going and then logs to have the fire burn longer and with more heat. That describes the current state of our national forests.
Forests require thinning to remove tree density levels, clearing of forest floor fuels such as dead, decaying, and insect-infested trees while restoring watersheds. Warmer temperatures, drier and less humid conditions make forests tinderboxes for lightning strikes; and, lightning causes about 65% of wildfires in the West.
The US Forest Service now estimates that 40 million homes in 70,000 communities face wildfire risk. But instead of instituting a holistic “put out the fire first, then actively manage our forests practice,” the agency adopts, at best, a tepid Wildfire Crisis Strategy.
After decades of studies, commission reports, and Congressional hearings, the agency’s strategy calls for more active forest management including thinning 20 million acres by 2032, an annual increase of 1.2 million acres over current levels. What they didn’t tell us, insects damage an additional five to seven million acres each year. This means our at-risk forest picture gets worse under this new policy when combining insect damage with annual wildfire events. That’s over 130 million acres of at-risk forests in 3 short years – a 30% increase.
Shockingly, the policy calls for less reliance on wildfire suppression. Putting out the fire saves lives and prevents the loss of homes, businesses, wildlife, and our forests. And ultimately saves money. We need to restore the forests impacted by wildfires using sound forest sustainability practices. Native American tribes have been doing that for hundreds of years.
We understand forest management isn’t without cost. But shifting priorities for the substantial funding required must be a priority – not just for our treasured forests but our health as well. Adopting holistic wildfire suppression and forest sustainability practices must become a priority for Federal and state governments, or the crisis of deadly and destructive wildfires will only get much worse.
We urgently need to rethink our wildfire suppression and forest management policies. This must include consideration of novel public-private partnerships and involvement of Indigenous forest management practices to provide the resources required. Otherwise, we will be wishing that daily doses of wildfire events and smoke inhalation were a thing of the past.
Auchterlonie and Lehman are co-authors of “Running Out of Time: Wildfires and Our Imperiled Forests,” a new book and turnaround plan chronicling their 10 years of research into forest management policies and practices.