In July 2021, lightning struck a tree rocky ridge deep in the California National Forest near the Nevada border. The U.S. Forest Service has decided that fighting at the site is too risky, and that few firefighters would be more helpful in other fires – 36 burned in California that month. Twelve days later the wind pushed the fire down, where 14 houses burned. The Forest Service sent firefighters, helicopters and tankers to what became known as the Tamar fire on the day the wind changed, but local politicians blamed the agency for “allow[ing] this forest fire to burn instead of immediate complete suppression, ”and called for more aggressive tactics.
National forests are often to blame for forest fires in the West that misunderstood the Forest Service’s response, says Christopher Dunn, a fire ecologist at Oregon State University. But more importantly, Tamarak’s fire is not representative of the fires that threaten most Westerners. According to a recent study co-authored by Dunn and published in magazine Scientific reportsfires in national forests are a “rare occurrence”.
Instead, “these fires are likely to come out of private land and move into a national forest or community,” Dan explains.
This finding could have profound implications for the way the United States is developing its national fire policy since A 10-year strategy for the forest fire crisis released by the Forest Service last fall. “It may make sense to work in the woods to protect the woods, but if our goal is to protect communities, we need to do that work right at home,” says Courtney Schultz, director of the Colorado Public Policy Group. State University, which did not participate in the study.
People are causing forest fires
According to a new study, between 1990 and 2019, about 35,000 buildings burned in forest fires in 11 western states between New Mexico, California, Washington and Montana.
There were 91 extremely devastating fires, each of which burned more than 50 buildings. But only a quarter of these devastating fires began in the Republican forests. And those fires have caused only 15 percent of total housing damage in two decades.
“I don’t necessarily think I had an intuition that more fire was burning on our earth,” said Matthew Thompson, a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Research Station and co-author of the article. “It’s a problem that has risk factors and mitigation measures that have nothing to do with forest management.”
[Related: Wildfires could hit your hometown. Here’s how to prepare.]
The biggest of these risk factors for mass fires came from humans. Fires were most frequent when about 150,000 people lived around the burned area, and when there were many roads crossing the national forest. Only two of the 91 devastating fires that began in the national forests started from lightning; the rest was caused by people.
“Part of what this study shows is that the risk comes not primarily from the forest service, but also from the community itself,” says Schultz. Importantly, the study found that the most devastating fires burned in hot and windy conditions, which means that it is unlikely that they could have been prevented by thinning the surrounding forests.
It is true that increasing fuel loads have made western forests more prone to burning in hot and dry conditions. But this is more due to the lack of regular fires that clear grass, bushes and dry firewood than to deforestation. (The trunks of mature trees are not the main source of fuel for most fires.) Climate change also leads to drier and hotter summers when fires are more intense and frequent.
Report released on Wednesday The United Nations has found that by 2050, there will be 30 percent more forest fires worldwide each year. And in the US, more houses are being built in the suburbs or the countryside near forests or flammable meadows than any other environment that increases the threat. A A 2014 article, co-authored with Thompson, described the “forest fire paradox”. in which firefighting is successful in 99 percent of cases, but dramatically increases the risk of fire, which is impossible to control. In cases like the 2018 campfire that killed 85 people, flames explode across the landscape, eating miles at once. (The fire mostly burned private land, but it is unclear on national forest lands or outside.)
“If we focus only on the federal lands,” Dan says, “we won’t find ourselves where we need to be to protect people. We all have a shared responsibility. “
Who is coping with the crisis?
Last year, the Forest Service, which monitors 300,000 square miles of national forests, announced a plan to “respond to the wildfire crisis,” which calls for 50 million new acres of western forests to be cultivated over the next decade on and off state lands. The The latest bill on federal infrastructure postpone several billion dollars to achieve this goal.
Forests are a key part of the puzzle, as managing fires is more than protecting homes, according to several experts. PopSci. In denser forests, management can mean restoring light fires, making them less prone to catastrophic burns, or maintaining wildflowers and grasses, which in turn provide habitat for butterflies and birds. In the oak forests of Southern California and the Panderosis of the Rockies, low-intensity burns can even sequester carbon.
“When we look at [year-round fires]constant fuel accumulation, climate change and [growing] The interface of the wilderness and the city, we don’t see that anything will change until we intervene, ”said Brian Fereby, senior forest service chief who is managing the forest fire crisis strategy. The agency has historically reduced or burned between two million and three million hectares a year across the country, which he said is not commensurate with tackling forest fires. ”
Ferebee says the Forest Service is still developing exposure targets plan, not just its execution. “There are a number of values that interest society more than cultivated acres or wood sold,” he says. “Is it about what level of improvement has taken place in the watershed, or to what extent have you improved wildlife habitat, or how have you mitigated the impact on vulnerable communities?”
He notes that they will be formed both by the study of the forest service and round tables with communities started this spring. “We know we need to talk about it,” Ferebi says. “I can’t describe to you how we’re going to measure these results, but we know they’re very important.”
But if a country’s goal is to prevent harm to communities, research shows that cities, counties and states should also step up. How This is stated in a 2014 article“Fires are inevitable, but not the destruction of homes, ecosystems and lives.”
Live with the lights
The biggest threat to homes, Dan says, is rains of coals blowing on the roof or wall rather than flames. This risk can be managed by removing trees, shrubs and grass that can catch fire, and replacing windows, roofs and siding with refractory materials.
But modernization may face tens of thousands of dollars, and entire neighborhoods, especially in the suburbs, may end up taking the burden, says Erica Fisher, a civil engineer from Oregon State University who is collaborating with Dan but was not the author of the new study. “You really need to get support from the communities. If your neighbors’ houses are on fire, the probability that your house will catch fire is very high. ” The fires burn for a long time, sprinkling the surrounding areas with coals until the flames are finally extinguished. The best way to get protection across the district, Fisher says, is through mandatory policies, such as zoning codes, combined with grants for homeowners.
Fisher points to the bill was passed in Oregon last summer as a possible model for protecting people and infrastructure such as water, schools and hospitals from forest fires. Among other things, the legislation creates a nationwide policy to classify fire hazard facilities, such as flood maps. The government is developing “protected area” codes for the highest risk categories.
This is not widespread in fire protection, although building codes resistant to earthquakes and hurricanes are quite common. “We have already set up mitigation plans for communities from hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and floods,” Fisher said. This approach may become more popular: In interview with The Colorado Sun. after fires outside Boulder in late 2021, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pointed to the Oregon bill as a possible model.
[Related: Here’s exactly how wildfires are polluting our air]
But the new policy of the state faced resistance from owner groups, who worried that “farmers … are forced to remove crops near the barn” and other consequences, according to the Association of Real Estate Owners of Oregon. Local issues like these will dictate the shape of the national fire-fighting plan. “The community protection case is probably at the county level,” Dan says.
Schultz says communities are slowly approaching the reality that they need to live near a fire. And, according to Ferebi, county officials, sheriffs and other local politicians will participate in forest service roundtables that shape the crisis plan.
“I think the result is that your best investment is where you also have partners who are willing to work around communities,” Schultz says. If the forest service can restore fires and treat forests, and neighboring communities renovate buildings and manage private lands, “this is what ultimately reduces risk to communities and restores the natural ecological integrity of the forest,” he adds.
This is how Fereby says that the forest service is trying to implement its crisis plan. The first two years will include projects that are already planned; Priorities for 3-10 years will be developed with community roundtables. If the community says it does not want to collaborate on the project, Farabi says, “we will continue to talk and work with them until there is a time when they are either interested and ready, or we just keep working with interested and willing communities.” Approximately 44 million homes at risk of forest fires are likely to be a long queue.