Why the West is Burning

rapido101

Kicked
From Outside Magazine:

There are 137 large wildfires raging across 7.8 million acres in what might be the worst fire season ever
Today's wildfire-caused smoke conditions across North America. (EPA)

west-burning_h.jpg

Wes Siler
Wes Siler

Sep 11, 2017

there are 137 large wildfires currently raging across the American West, burning a total of 7.8 million acres. That’s not yet as bad as 2015, which saw 8.4 million acres burned, but it’s only September and this is already the third worst year for wildfires in the last decade. It’s already way ahead of the previous 10-year annual average of 5.4 million acres burned.


You’ve seen the apocalyptic images from the Columbia River Gorge, Glacier National Park, and the Los Angeles Suburbs, but those fires are only a small part of the overall picture. Currently there are 13 active wildfires in Washington, 26 in Oregon, 23 in Idaho, 46 in Montana, and 38 in California. I could go on, but you get the idea. (You can find all the data on current fire conditions here.) Smoke from these fires currently envelopes an area stretching north to the Queen Maude Gulf, in the Canadian Arctic, west to Seattle, south to Waco, Texas, and east to Columbus, Ohio.



fuel-aridity-chart.jpg

Annual forest fire area in the U.S., and its relationship to fuel aridity, which is a function of hot weather. (National Academy of Sciences)


Why is this happening?

Extreme Heat
This year has also brought record heat to the West. Just last week, San Francisco recorded its highest temperature ever—106 degrees, three more than the city has ever seen before. It’s been the hottest, driest summer in Seattle—ever. It’s the hottest, driest summer Montana has ever had. When I drove past the La Tuna fire, the largest in Los Angeles’s history, the external temperature gauge in my Land Rover registered 114 degrees.

High temperatures bake out the moisture absorbed by forests during the extremely wet winter. Because heat leads to drier fuel, the relationship between each additional degree of temperature and the likelihood and severity of fire has been found to be exponential: every additional degree of temperature is more likely to lead to fire than the last.


The Drought Persists Despite a Wet Winter
While the historic drought that afflicted the West over the last five years officially ended this winter, its effects are still being felt. In the Sierra Nevada mountains alone, the drought claimed an estimated 26 million trees. Statewide, 102 million have been killed. Most of those have not been cleared, and their dried out husks clutter forest floors, and still stand on mountain sides, creating perfect fuel for wildfires. Forests that once had open ground under the trees are now so cluttered with dead logs that it’s become impossible to walk off-trail across much of the western Sierra.

All this winter’s rain also led to huge growth for grasses and underbrush, which this summer’s record heat then dried out, turning it into massive amounts of tinder. Stack dry grass under a dead log, and you have the perfect recipe for a campfire. Scale that across the entire west and you have our ongoing disaster.


Fire Management Meets Urban Planning and Politics
According to an analysis by the insurance industry, 60 percent of new homes constructed since 1990 are located in what’s known as the Wildland-Urban Interface Area. In short, we’re building our homes in areas that naturally burn. More than $500 billion of homes exist across the 13 western states in areas categorized as at extreme or high risk of wildfires. And that construction is making it more difficult to proactively head off massive fires in those areas with controlled burns.

The other big factor limiting wildfire prevention right now is budget. All these huge fires cost tons of money to fight, and that money is coming out of prevention budgets. Every time a state or the Forest Service has to fight a fire, its financial ability to prevent other fires diminishes.

“As more and more of the agency’s resources are spent each year to provide the firefighters, aircraft, and other assets necessary to protect lives, property, and natural resources from catastrophic wildfires, fewer and fewer funds and resources are available to support other agency work—including the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat,” reads the U.S. Forest Service’s 2015 budget report. Fifty-two percent of its money went to firefighting that year—a percentage that’s expected to grow to 67 percent by 2025. This year alone, the Forest Service is already $300 million over budget for fire fighting.

The Forest Service knows it needs to change the way it deals with fire, but it’s so busy trying to fight fires, and going so broke fighting them, that it can’t afford to.



usfs-budget.jpg

As the Forest Service spends more money fighting fires, it has less money to spend preventing them. As it has less money to spend preventing fires, it has to spend more money fighting them. Something has to change. (USFS)


It’s All Connected to Climate Change
Since 1970, the annual wildfire season has grown in duration by 78 days. Since 1984, the area annual burned by wildfire has doubled. The Forest Service estimates that area may double again by 2050.

Climate change is also bringing wildfires to new areas, and to a degree never before seen. Since the 1980s, the area burned annually in the northern Rockies has increased 3,000 percent. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s a 5,000 percent increase over the same period. Between 1978 and 1982, the average burn time of a fire was just six days. Between 2003 and 2012, it was 52 days.

“Warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt have contributed to drier conditions,” readsthe research behind those figures. “But cooler, more moist forests, such as those in the northern Rockies, have seen the greatest drying due to changes in the timing of spring, and the greatest changes in forest wildfire.”

“Observed warming and drying have significantly increased fire-season fuel aridity, fostering a more favorable fire environment across forested systems,” reads another study. “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.”


How Do We Pay for This?
By the end of the century, the West is projected to warm by an additional 3.5 degrees Celsius. Given the exponential relationship between temperature and wildfire, that’s bad news.

The Forest Service elaborates:



“Changing climatic conditions across regions of the United States are driving increased temperatures—particularly in regions where fire has not been historically prominent. This change is causing variations and unpredictability in precipitation and is amplifying the effects and costs of wildfire. Related impacts are likely to continue to emerge in several key areas: limited water availability for fire suppression, accumulation at unprecedented levels of vegetative fuels that enable and sustain fires, changes in vegetation community composition that make them more fire prone, and an extension of the fire season to as many as 300 days in many parts of the country. These factors result in fires that increasingly exhibit extreme behavior and are more costly to manage. The six worst fire seasons since 1960 have all occurred since 2000. Moreover, since 2000, many western states have experienced the largest wildfires in their state’s history.”


To pay for part of this season’s suppression budget, $300 million for the Forest Service has been written into the Hurricane Harvey relief bill. But the agency is desperately in need of a major new source of funding. If it doesn’t get one, it’s estimated that the budget for other activities, like fire prevention, could shrink by $700 million annually between now and 2025.

This is not a problem we can afford to neglect. The solution to this funding shortfall is obvious—fires need to be treated like the disasters they are, and fighting them needs to be paid for in the same way we deal with other natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes.

“Congress needs to step up and treat these infernos like the natural disasters they are,” says Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to congress in 2013. The bill, which has since languished in committee, creates a federal fund dedicated to fire suppression, supplanting budgets drawn from states and the Forest Service’s general budget.

Now, state lawmakers are calling on Congress to revisit the bill. “Congress needs to act,” Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney wrote in a letter to Congress last Friday. “This is no time for politics. It’s time for action. My state is on fire.”
 

freestoneangler

Not to be confused with Freestone
Yet 90% of fires are caused by man... and that folks is how we jump to an incorrect, but keep the narrative moving forward, conclusion.

How about we stop all use of fireworks except in very select and controlled venues? How about we further restrict backcountry ORV travel and campfires? Interesting no mention of taking steps that cost nearly nothing and will reduce chance of ignition.
 

rapido101

Kicked
Yet 90% of fires are caused by man... and that folks is how we jump to an incorrect, but keep the narrative moving forward, conclusion.

How about we stop all use of fireworks except in very select and controlled venues? How about we further restrict backcountry ORV travel and campfires? Interesting no mention of taking steps that cost nearly nothing and will reduce chance of ignition.
All good suggestions to minimize direct man made causes of ignition - but that has little to do with the main premise of this article. Climate change is not at question here; the question is how to deal with fires as major natural disasters, politically and practically.
 

freestoneangler

Not to be confused with Freestone
All good suggestions to minimize direct man made causes of ignition - but that has little to do with the main premise of this article. Climate change is not at question here; the question is how to deal with fires as major natural disasters, politically and practically.

Oh, it's about pushing the climate change agenda for sure. If not, why was that section even added? Further, why does the author not even mention that a vast majority of these fires could be avoided with revised outdoor recreation policies - at virtually no cost?
 

rapido101

Kicked
Oh, it's about pushing the climate change agenda for sure. If not, why was that section even added? Further, why does the author not even mention that a vast majority of these fires could be avoided with revised outdoor recreation policies - at virtually no cost?
Climate change can be mentioned, but isn't necessarily the focus. Problem is, even using the words 'climate change' on this Forum is like waving a red flag in front of a bull and impartiality seems to fly out the window. Regarding policies: there are plenty of laws and policy already in place, but not adhered to. As napawino says: it's about stupid. But I agree, improving/revising/enforcing policies that work - and talking about them - can only help.
 

Yard Sale

Huge Member
We can bicker about the cause but global warming is pretty obvious. This article seems to just be about the effects of hotter summers and a more extreme environment.

People won't like it but I gotta think that if we limited clear cutting then thinning would be more viable. Win win.
 

Derek Young

Down By The Riverside
This is the paradigm that humankind will have to overcome; that by adhering to a new set of rules for multiple-use forests (logging, recreation, cultural meaning valuing natural resources as-is) it means accepting that the climate has indeed changed and it is possible to do something about it.

For example, building rock dams in streams, campfires/fireworks/throwing cigarettes out of vehicles, etc. Some people just don't get it and don't care to - and sometimes we all pay the price.
 

hbmcc

Active Member
Thanks, Rapido.

It's good to build a working knowledge of sylviculture and fire management, simply to understand the basics. My information is 40+ years old. The spinup:

Most forest fires in WA, MT, ID, and I think, OR are lightning started. It's easy to identify arson or accidental fires. Those follow roads and activity. Is the Forest Service still supposed to be a profitable business? It takes money to maintain a forest, our public lands. Let's not pretend that handing everything to private business is good. To work, they must still be maintained. Plum Creek won't do it.

1. From ignition (lightning) to discovery (smoke/flame/satellite signature), I wonder what the typical response time is? The report says it is 52 days to complete fire mopup, up from 6 days. 3 days from lightning ignition can mean an acre smoldering without air movement. I worked on one that over-wintered.

2. On-going maintenance (fuel removal) is a critical need to prevent fire blow up. Grass burns fast but has very little fuel content, so the game is to race ahead and remove fuel. The only thing burning in the wake is wood, if there was enough heat to ignite it. In California chaparral makes the spectacular fires. That stuff is gasoline on a stick.

3. We have had several epidemics of drought, insects, combined with minimal slash clearing that add to the standing fuel build up. As noted, Climate Change exacerbated by humans in all or most, is accelerating the desertification of our forests. There have been years of lost maintenance.

4. We know preventive maintenance has been killed in order finance wars. We know budgets have been slashed reducing on-site man power and equipment for fire control. One thing that has changed since my days of chasing smokes is reduction/removal of service roads. Roads are critical to rapid response. The same smoke suppression crews managed the fuel reduction. Planes and copters are really costly, and they don't clear out fuels.

5. The current political environment is not a healthy one. Warmongers and stupidity control the purse. It's more important to curry favors and stock vote chests. We will watch our back yards burn up and go dead before the money shifts position.
 

Rob Allen

Active Member
1. I have not seen any evidence that we can do anything meaningful to curb climate change. There are lots of things people want to do but none of them do anything meaningful.
Especially when in our current state we require more energy and more resources than ever before. Not saying that's good or bad only the reality of our situation.


The current political environment is determined almost entirely controlled by the left, and has been for a very long time. Since the 1920s at least. It's been a long continual drag to the left a few minor course changes over the years but still a leftward trajectory. If anyone has complaints about society don't look to point fingers to the right. Especially in state and local politics Doubly especially in Oregon and Washington. Our government policies are a direct result of liberal thinking if you want things to be different don't vote for left leaners.

Both parties have bankrupted the middle class. I know for myself i have worked hard my whole adult life and have nothing left to give our government they already have it all. NOTHING will be solved by giving the government more revenue. NOTHING.
 

b_illymac

Soap Lake Posse
WFF Moderator
1. I have not seen any evidence that we can do anything meaningful to curb climate change. There are lots of things people want to do but none of them do anything meaningful.
Especially when in our current state we require more energy and more resources than ever before. Not saying that's good or bad only the reality of our situation.


The current political environment is determined almost entirely controlled by the left, and has been for a very long time. Since the 1920s at least. It's been a long continual drag to the left a few minor course changes over the years but still a leftward trajectory. If anyone has complaints about society don't look to point fingers to the right. Especially in state and local politics Doubly especially in Oregon and Washington. Our government policies are a direct result of liberal thinking if you want things to be different don't vote for left leaners.

Both parties have bankrupted the middle class. I know for myself i have worked hard my whole adult life and have nothing left to give our government they already have it all. NOTHING will be solved by giving the government more revenue. NOTHING.
Didn't you say awhile ago the middle class was fine on like 40000 a year or something? Not that I agree with you the middle class was fine but I thought that was your stance.
 

Alex MacDonald

that's His Lordship, to you.....
the root cause of so many fires is simple to understand--if you're willing to actually sit back and read it, rather than just blow it off.
1. the Forest "Service" has for about the last century focused on suppression, rather than thinning.
2. Forest "Service" personnel have not been able to thin dead trees with any success. Reason-they get sued constantly by some treehugger bunch which wants "nature" to run it's course (I've seen this around here at least for the last decade).
3. Dead wood eventually dries out
4. And then we get lightning storms in the mountains.
5. Every time-without exception (at least locally), when they propose a controlled burn, refer to #2 above.

Take the Jack Creek fire currently burning in Alpine Lakes: no effort whatsoever was made to put the thing out, No aircraft drops when it was small, no personnel (it's really rough country there, so I don't fault them for that), and now it's over 3,000 acres and growing. Pretty much the same situation for the rest of the fires locally. A few, like the Jolly Mountain fire are being actively fought with over 700 firefighters. The rest of them are just being "monitored", with an estimated "containment" date of the middle of October, when they'll be rained out.

I'll grant that "climate change" might have been responsible for the bark beetle infestation, but intelligent management would have seen the necessity of removing the dead wood to prevent a fuel overload--notice I said "intelligent".
 

Rob Allen

Active Member
Didn't you say awhile ago the middle class was fine on like 40000 a year or something? Not that I agree with you the middle class was fine but I thought that was your stance.

I said i was doing ok on 40k. 37 actually. And i am but if they start taking more i won't be.
 

hbmcc

Active Member
the root cause of so many fires is simple to understand--if you're willing to actually sit back and read it, rather than just blow it

I'll grant that "climate change" might have been responsible for the bark beetle infestation, but intelligent management would have seen the necessity of removing the dead wood to prevent a fuel overload--notice I said "intelligent".

What a stupid moron. Keep spouting worthless garbage.
 

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