Megafires Will Keep Driving up Firefighting Tab

28 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

California town hit hard by destructive wildfire reopens.

Wildfires that have burned more than eight million acres and are still raging in the West are draining the budgets of federal agencies and forcing them to divert money from essential environmental and land conservation programs to fight the fires. But a group of researchers – including a Forest Service ecologist – say the public needs to pressure the agency and other land managers to accept and embrace smaller-scale wildfires to prevent the worst of them.COLORADO SPRING, Colo. (AP) – Fire experts say El Paso County failed to enact significant changes to land use or fire codes following a destructive wildfire that burned 15,000 acres, destroyed 488 homes and killed two people two years ago.

Students in the Middletown Unified School District will head back to class Monday — more than two weeks after the Valley Fire devastated the Lake County community, devouring hundreds of homes and forcing thousands to flee. That is why Congress needs to start budgeting for forest fires in a different way, treating them more like natural disasters rather than a continuing expense. As California endures another destructive fire season, the ecologist, five academics and one wilderness advocate authored an opinion piece in this month’s edition of the journal Science. The county has wildfire protections built into land use codes for large-scale developments, but it did not improve or extend those codes after the Black Forest fire in 2013. The 76,067-acre fire — one of the most destructive in the state’s history — was 95 percent contained Sunday, one day after all remaining evacuation orders were lifted in the affected areas around Cobb and Middletown. “I am happy to tell you that we will be starting school again on Monday,” district Superintendent Catherine Stone said in a message to students. “We are still working out some details, but we know our schools will be ready for you to come back then.” Middletown high and middle schools, along with Minnie Cannon and Coyote Valley elementary schools, will start at 9 a.m.

The authors describe a problem they say is painfully obvious to those who study the nation’s forests: Following decades of aggressive suppression of all manner of fire, too many forests have grown unnaturally dense. In its just-released plan to chop down trees in nearly 17,000 acres hit by last year’s King fire in the Eldorado National Forest – including logging in 28 occupied spotted owl territories – the agency trots out the same tired falsehoods. The fires have not only ruined thousands of homes, they are also responsible for killing at least five people, including possibly a man whose body was found in the remains of a wildfire that occurred Sunday in Monterey County. The Forest Service, a division of the Agriculture Department, says that 52 percent of its budget this year is dedicated to suppressing and managing fires, a whopping increase from 16 percent only 10 year ago. The fires that aren’t immediately extinguished in these unnatural conditions rage out of control with furious intensity, torching nearly every last tree and menacing rural communities.

County-wide codes governing development in wildfire zones are not universal in Colorado and are not easy to enforce where they do exist, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported ( ). After they spend days hacking dead brush and setting defensive fires across flaming mountains, their 24-hour rest breaks are cut short when a new fire rears up.

But the 2 percent that escape containment are increasingly likely to burn under extreme conditions on lands that are thick with fuel, accounting for 97 percent of the wildfire suppression costs and area burned. In this relentless wildfire season, when fire crews and resources are stretched thin from the foothills of the Rockies to Alaska’s wilderness, the latest enemy confronting firefighters is not flame. In truth, wildfire is natural and necessary in the Sierra Nevada, even fires that burn very hot over huge areas, and human interference after fires is harmful rather than helpful. Since the early 1990s, foresters have argued that we could reduce these costs and the areas burned if we could implement a combination of mechanical thinning – logging – and prescribed burning. The codes also raise questions about property rights. “What I will say is that there are things that are important in our development code already, such as … making sure there is adequate water supply, and ensuring that when large developments are done, there is that defensible space,” she said.

But at the same time, fire managers allowed just .04 percent of national forests to burn, said a report by forest scientists published this month in Science, a peer-reviewed journal. Federal agencies should have sufficient resources to deal with wildfires without robbing programs designed to protect water quality, preserve and acquire open space and which, in some cases, are explicitly aimed at making forests more resilient to future fires. Fleckenstein knew he was getting tired when he climbed into his red-striped truck after a full day defending the pine-shaded neighborhoods where the blaze had erupted on the afternoon of Sept. 12.

Unattended fires like the ones that burned in North Idaho this year are the least-expensive fuel treatments available — not that managers would have left them unattended in those extreme weather conditions if they’d had enough manpower. The secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack; the secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell; and the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Shaun Donovan, sent a letter on Sept. 15 to members of Congress calling on them to treat wildfires more like other national disasters. Still, even though some places did burn severely and will require rehabilitation to reduce erosion, much of the effect was positive, said Jay Kirchner, a Panhandle National Forest spokesman. Wyatt Hahn, a junior psychology major, said he anticipates getting a text from his father, Dave Hahn, once he safely returns to base camp after helping fight the Valley fires as an engineer for the Orange County Fire Department. Annually recurring fires are obviously different from, say, a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina, but the idea is that the agencies would be allowed to tap emergency funds in bad fire years when costs exceed a certain percentage of their budgets.

Other counties and cities are creating wildfire hazard rating maps, broken down by parcel. “We are seeing more and more of these codes being implemented, and more and more interest,” said Mike Caggiano, a researcher with Colorado State University. “There are definitely a lot of challenges to implementing these sorts of codes, and property rights are a big issue here. Fighting wildfires has always been draining, dangerous work, but firefighters say they now are being flung from one huge blaze to the next, using the same old axes and scrapers to fight a new species of mega-fires born from years of drought, while dealing with rising temperatures and government policies that filled the woods with tinder. Black-backed woodpeckers thrive in the most charred forests, feasting on the superabundance of insects and creating nesting holes in the freshly dead trees. They need to be effective and make sure that they work well.” Passing a new, stricter fire code takes money and staffing that not all counties have, said Andrew Notbohm, an emergency management coordinator for the Boulder Office of Emergency Management.

As the number of employees involved in dealing with fires has increased by 114 percent since 1998, to more than 12,000 people, the number of employees managing the service’s lands has fallen by 39 percent, to less than 11,000. These rodents are food for imperiled California spotted owls, who have been documented hunting in charcoal forests, using dead trees to perch upon and listen for their prey rustling below.

Heavily burned forests are great hunting grounds for the owl, but studies have proven that post-fire logging causes owls to abandon their territories. This year, Cal Fire issued a safety bulletin about the dangers of working while tired, and reminded fire leaders to follow guidelines that suggest an hour of rest for every two hours of work. Climate experts are cautious about linking any single natural disaster — a major hurricane or flood, for instance — to global warming, and that reluctance extends to wildfires as well.

Fish and Wildlife Service agrees – recently the agency decided to consider listing the California spotted owl as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, citing thinning and post-fire logging as primary threats to declining populations. But scientists are widely agreed that climate change is creating the conditions that are likely to make fires bigger and more intense in years to come. Sherri Eng, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station headquartered in Albany, said the agency encourages its scientists to share their work but that North crossed a line with his advocacy. “Our role is to conduct and publish research, not to evaluate land-management policy,” Eng said.

After two or three straight days of trudging through the woods carrying 50 to 100 pounds of gear and water, they said, they keep going by telling inside jokes and through sheer inertia. They eat field rations, Pop-Tarts and energy bars. “Let’s go, bro’,” they say. “If I’m still going, you can, too.” “You have to keep yourself moving,” said Curtis Tinloy, 23, a seasonal firefighter who has a second job as a high school water-polo coach. “You have to keep one foot in front of the other. The state and the fire protective districts charge forest land owners 60 cents an acre for fire protection — and another $40 per parcel if there are structures — but set a maximum limit and let taxpayers pay costs above that. This approach means California and other Western states will be even more vulnerable to devastating wildfires next year as vital prevention programs are delayed, sometimes indefinitely.” Brandon Bertolino, a fire engineer, said he knew this season would be different as he drove to a half-acre fire near a dam here in Lake County and saw ember-driven fires spreading across the front yards of nearby houses.

Overall, Idaho taxpayers face a $50 million bill for firefighting so far this year — after the federal government reimburses $17 million of the $67 million the state spent. More aggressive management is often proposed as a preventive measure, with the argument that forests that are thinned more often and harvested more frequently are less subject to destructive fire. About nine million acres have burned across the country this year, about 50 percent more than the average of the past 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. But sometimes you just can’t do that.” David Lindsay, 22, a first-time seasonal firefighter, had been working for days on a Napa County fire when his team members were released to shower, sleep and wash their clothes.

The Science commentary, written by Northwest forest scientists led by Forest Service research forest ecologist Malcolm North, called for more thinning, more prescribed fire and more fires being allowed to burn. President Obama and Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson have their own versions of similar proposals. “If we can stop fire borrowing, we can reinvigorate and strengthen our active management of our public lands that will help to stop this trend of catastrophic fire,” Crapo said. “This would mean continuous increases in fire-suppression expenditures, which would in all probability make the problem of catastrophic fires worse,” Reason’s Morris wrote. Their battalion chief approached them to say they could drive down from the mountain to rest, but there would be no reinforcements arriving to protect the neighborhood.

Fleckenstein had seen homes survive and others burn, but he said he had choked up that afternoon telling the firefighters to get some rest. “Having nobody to relieve and walking away from everything we’d accomplished, knowing the strong probability it was going to be lost — it was too much to swallow,” he said.

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