How should the United States prepare for another intense fire season? | Climate News


Amid an unprecedented heatwave in the United States, President Joe Biden will meet Wednesday with Western state governors, cabinet members and federal emergency management officials to prepare for what experts warn that already is one of the most intense droughts and gunpowder seasons yet.

The president has already pledged to raise firefighters ’salaries from the current rate of $ 13 an hour, which he described as“ a ridiculously low salary ”.

Experts note whether Biden can adequately prepare the United States for another year of dangerous forest fires and extreme temperatures, while again balancing forests and long-term climate.

But they warn that in the short term, the danger is already in the oven.

Smoke feathers rise from a flare while a fire broke out in Arizona on June 7, 2021, in this image obtained from social media [File: Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management via Reuters]

“As for this year, we can’t do much, except to make sure the firefighters have what they need and that FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and the Forest Service and the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] they are coordinating as closely as state governments can, ”said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program.

“No matter how much governments try to control the risk, it will take a few years to move forward,” said Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Why do forest fires get worse?

Forest fires are already burning in Arizona, California and other states, and water reservoirs are at historic lows.

The western United States lives for decades megadrought this has not been seen for 1,000 years, scientists say. Climate change accelerates drought by altering the water cycle and causing increased evaporation over already low rainfall.

This means a longer and more intense fire season this year and in the coming years, experts say, because decades of poor planning have left dense forests with plants that have now dried up and are ready to burn.

A firefighting helicopter demonstrates a drop of water in Los Alamitos, California, on June 14 [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]

The large area of burnt earth Forest fires have increased dramatically since the 1970s, according to Reuters news agency, and the United States now regularly experiences “megafocs,” which burn more than 40,000 acres (40,000 acres). In 2020, forest fires burned a record 10 million acres in the western U.S.

Humans are the most common cause of forest fires, and population growth in the west along with the construction of residences in fire-prone areas is causing more dangerous fires. All of this has contributed to increasingly deadly forest fires and health problems such as heart attacks and asthma due to heavy smoke.

What should Biden do?

Experts are clear: US forests they are too dense and we need to proactively thin them by mechanical cleaning and prescribed burns. To do that, the U.S. Forest Service needs more money.

Last year, the Forest Service experienced a huge reduction in its hazardous fuel reduction budget, Wara explained. Prior to the pandemic, it spent more than $ 300 million a year, but dropped to less than $ 100 million a year in 2021. Its funding was increased for 2022, but is still below levels. prior to the pandemic.

“We need to think differently about this issue and the Forest Service in its budget for 2022 is not thinking differently,” Wara said. “It’s more or less the same.”

The Forest Service wants to do two to four times more reduction in hazardous fuel compared to current levels, Wara said, but it actually has to do ten times as much.

Federal and state governments can prevent huge economic losses by investing now, Field said. He used California as an example: in 2019, California suffered economic losses of more than $ 30 billion from forest fires, but between $ 5 billion and $ 10 billion a year could be invested over the next five years to control forest fires. Still, California continues to spend too little; its budget for wildfires by 2022 is $ 1 billion.

“The investment needed to keep a safe and stable track would generally be less than the losses in a single year of heavy fires,” Field said.

On June 21, 2021, smoke from forest fires hung in the valleys of the Uinta Mountains in eastern Utah.[File: Jim Urquhart/Reuters]

Experts believe we need to go back to the strategy that Native Americans used before they were forced off their land. The idea is to reintroduce the “good fire.” Hundreds of years ago, less intense fires crackled and creaked regularly among the forests, and indigenous people used planned burns to maintain the balance of ecosystems. When the settlers took the land, the policies were inconsistent and harmful.

John Bailey, a professor at Oregon State University Forestry College, was a firefighter in the 1980s. Firefighters then believed they were doing the right thing by suppressing the fires, but their efforts allowed the forests to grow dangerously and turned agricultural land into forests, paving the way for fires in larger areas of land.

In the 1990s, policies to protect endangered spotted owl habitat led to a sharp decline in harvesting and forest management in the west, but Bailey said we really need a “good fire” to renew this. habitat. “Fire is one destructive force and a creative force to sustain old growth, and that’s the path we want to follow if we want to preserve them, ”Bailey said.

“There needs to be a fire, a good fire, a low-intensity surface fire, ground fire every decade or so, probably at most every 20 years,” Wara said. “And that means that every year we have to deal with something like 10 percent of the whole landscape. We’re nowhere near that: we’re down about 1 percent. It used to be something that didn’t matter so much because climate change wasn’t charging for the fire season, but now, of course, it is. ”

Wara added that the Biden administration should fund greater risk reduction before forest fire disasters through FEMA.

A new forestry staff

Wara said Forest Service employees are poorly paid and many are seasonal. “To do this job, they really need a new workforce.”

The way the current system works is that, in low season, people are used to remove hazardous fuels and, during the fire season, they work as firefighters. As the fire seasons are now longer and more intense, firefighting tasks begin earlier and when the fire season is over, they need a break to heal mentally and physically and should see the their families. This means that not so much dangerous fuel cleaning is taking place.

“It’s not a sustainable model,” Wara said.

Bailey suggested employing a federal workforce to manage forests, similar to the Civil Conservation Corps, a public works relief program in the 1930s and 1940s.

Wara said there is “a huge opportunity” to participate Native Americans in a new model and workforce, because many areas need treatment boundary reserves. He said policymakers should consider returning land to Native Americans for management.

“If we are going to conserve more land, we need to think differently to take into account the racial injustice and genocide that occurred to give rise to the federal and private land ownership patterns we have now.” He said.

“The problem of forest fires is something we can control, but we need to be proactive and ambitious,” Field said.

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