Moderator: HAZ - Moderators
http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/as-wil ... ar-BBdbeHT“We don’t fight hurricanes, we don’t fight earthquakes, but we do fire
Smokey Bear may not know the half of it.
As one of the longest and costliest wildfire seasons in U.S. history comes to a close, a new study asserts the way we’ve been attempting to prevent forest fires is “simply wrong.”
“We don’t fight hurricanes, we don’t fight earthquakes, but we do fire. It has other ways of being dealt with, and we’ve lost sight of that,” says Max Moritz, fire research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the study's lead author.
Wildfires killed 34 firefighters last year and scorched more than 4.1 million acres of private, state and federal land, according the U.S. Forest Service and the National Interagency Fire Center. Putting out those blazes cost over $1.7 billion, and that doesn’t include investments in fire prevention – a combined price tag that’s swelled from 14 percent of the Forest Service’s budget in 1999 to nearly half last year.
Federal funding, meanwhile, has failed to keep pace: As blazes have grown larger and the fire season ever longer, federal firefighting budgets have run dry, forcing the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, which oversee wildfire suppression, to dip into other accounts – most notably prevention.
“Over the past decade, wildfires have increased in size and intensity, and the fire season now extends 60-80 days longer than historic averages,” Western Governors Association executive director Jim Ogsbury says. “Exacerbated by drought and invasive species, wildfires have resulted in costs exceeding $1 billion every year since 2000.”
He called the situation “a vicious cycle of high fire risk and elevated emergency expenditure.”
Climate change is largely to blame: more erratic weather, extreme storms and warming temperatures have led to the droughts and bug infestations that have transformed acres of trees and brush into dry tinder, according to the study, published this week in the journal Nature.
“Over my 45 years in the business, summers are hotter, fires are bigger,” says Tom Harbour, fire director of the National Interagency Fire Center.
But as far as damage to human lives and property, an equal culprit may be how local, state and federal policymakers have responded to those fires: that is, by focusing heavily on clear-cutting and burning swathes of trees and brush to rob blazes of fuel, at the expense of other kinds of prevention, Moritz says.
“We need to change our focus beyond fuels reduction,” the researcher contends. “The idea that there’s this monolithic wildfire problem, that’s just not true. There are a whole slew of different wildfire problems that we face.”
A century ago, and for decades after, the state and federal approach to mitigating that hazard was to fight virtually every fire, man-made or natural, Harbour says.
“We saw fire as an enemy, a nuisance a problem,” he says. Only recently has that view evolved, he adds.
Notably, fire is a natural, ecological part of more than 90 percent of the wildland in the U.S. It clears brush and pine needles and debris, reducing the kinds of fuels that contribute to hotter and larger fires.
“We’ve come to a conclusion that there’s a time and a place for this for this force of nature,” Harbour says.
Finding that time and place, though, has grown ever harder.
Nearly one-third of Americans now live in what’s known as the Wildland-Urban Interface, Harbour says, or areas in or on the edge of forests and other large swathes of open land. Interface areas in the West alone are home to roughly 12 million houses – and that number is rising.
There are fewer and fewer areas, in other words, where fire can be allowed to burn freely.
“When you plop your home right in the middle of a forest, my ability to view that land in a purely ecological perspective has changed dramatically because now you’ve got a home there. You’ve got private property there, you’ve got property rights,” Harbour says. “We’ve got to figure out a way to combine what we know ecologically about fire with the fact that we’ve basically got around 100 million people in the United States at risk of fire.”
The solution rests in some combination of education and urban planning – not merely constraining where and what kind of development can occur, but making sure evacuation routes are built and maintained, and that building codes meet the expanding threat of wildfires.
"There is no one-size-fits-all response for the wildland issues that we face," says Brent Keith, policy director for the National Association of State Foresters, a nonprofit organization of state forestry agencies.
Just as California, for example, requires new homes to be built with a “continuous load path” – a series of solid metal and wood connections between floors, walls and the ceiling that help mitigate damage from earthquakes – homes in fire-prone regions could be required to be outfitted with metal roofs and ember-proof vents, fortifying them to the flaming debris that’s responsible for setting most buildings ablaze during a forest fire.
California, in fact, already has stricter building codes for homes located in the state’s Fire Hazard Severity Zoning map. But whether and how there should be government incentives and subsidies to help builders and homeowners meet those kinds of standards – whether on new buildings or old – is a more fundamental question, let alone how many other states might adopt similar measures.
“If you live near the Mississippi, you got to know about floods. If you live in the Midwest, you got to live with tornadoes. If you live in Florida, you got to live with hurricanes,” Harbour says. “We debate the question in the U.S. about the responsibility of the homeowner just by virtue of being in the place that they are.”
He pointed to programs like Firewise and Ready, Set Go!, initiatives that teach homeowners how to prepare their houses for potential wildfires.
“There’s this conception that people moving into fire-prone landscapes don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” Moritz says. “People have a pretty decent sense of the hazards that they’re living with, but whether they’re motivated to actually take action and mitigate those risks or they know what the next step is – they might know it’s hazardous, but they might not know how to mitigate the hazard or have the resources to mitigate the hazard.”
“To be good stewards,” he says, “our 350 million citizens need to be much more acutely aware of the role they play in fire: where they build, how they deal with fire, how they view fire, being careful with fire. We’re not divorced from the surroundings. we’re a part of the surroundings.”