Ecocentric

Let It Burn: Changing Firefighting Techniques for a Warming World

This year has been a bloody one for firefighters on the front lines against wildfires. With climate change intensifying fires, it may be time to change the way we fight them.

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Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The devastating Rim Fire threatened Yosemite in August.

We usually measure wildfires in acres burnt or the number of homes destroyed. But there’s a human toll to fires as well. So far this year 32 people have lost their lives fighting fires, the highest number in nearly 20 years—and the fire season isn’t done yet. More than half of those deaths occurred in a single incident, when all but one of a 20-man firefighting crew were killed during the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona in June.

Those deaths were tragic and random, the result of an unpredictable shift in wind patterns during the wildfire and communication problems among the firefighters. But it’s also true that wildfires seem to be getting worse—and that our firefighting policy, as well as warming temperatures, may be playing a role in that shift.


(MORE: From Drought to Drenched: Colorado’s Volatile Weather)

The U.S. fights wildfires like it once fought wars—with overwhelming force aiming for unconditional surrender. But trying to stop all wildfires has become increasingly expensive—the annual cost of fire suppression passed $2 billion last year, and by the end of August this year, the federal government had already run through its budgeted funds to fight wildfires.

It’s not just a fiscal crisis, though.  Wildfires have always been a natural part of forest ecology, especially in the dry American West. The occasional small fire prevents forests from becoming overgrown, clearing old vegetation out for new growth. But if you try to smother every wildfire that breaks out—which is what the U.S. Forest Service does now—that vegetation keeps growing and growing, adding more potential fuel to the next fire. And that raises the chances of a megafire, one of the devouring infernos—like the wildfire that threatened Yosemite National Park in California earlier this summer—that truly can kill.

Suppression firefighting has had other unintended consequences. With the frequency of small fires reduced, property owners have felt freer to move closer and closer to forests, expanding the wildland-urban interface, the danger zone where homes border easily combustible forest, as this NPR report shows:

This expansion has changed the way wildland firefighters operate, and many are now expected to also protect homes and property in the woods. This is something [environmental journalist Michael] Kodas says they aren’t equipped to do, unlike their urban counterparts.

“They’re wearing very lightweight, flame-retardant clothing and just carrying the fire shelters,” he says. “When a forest firefighter ends up trying to protect a house, they’re really not prepared for the hazards that come with trying to protect a structure.”

It’s a familiar story—there are more people and property in harm’s way, which compounds the risk of a major disaster. Throw in the effects of global warming—climate models suggest that warming is likely to increase the frequency and size of large, severe forest fires—and you have a recipe for disaster.

We’ll need to reduce carbon emissions and rethink patterns of development that put houses in the path of wildfires, but we’ll also need to rethink fire suppression, as a new article in the October 3 Science argues:

Fire policy that focuses on suppression only delays the inevitable, promising more dangerous and destructive future forest fires. In contrast, land management agencies could identify large firesheds (20,000 to 50,000 ha) where, under specified weather conditions, managed wildfire and large prescribed fire are allowed to burn, sometimes after strategic mechanical fuel treatments . Acknowledging diversity in fire ecology among forest types and preparing forests and people for larger and more frequent fires could help reduce detrimental consequences.

It might seem downright un-American—or at the very least, not very Western—to retreat from a take-no-prisoners policy on firefighting. But a changing climate means we need to change our tactics. Otherwise the cost—financial and human—will be far too high.

(MORE: World on Fire: Climate, Population and Intensifying Wildfires)

16 comments
HarryMartin1
HarryMartin1

This is not news nor is it a new practice being proposed.  It is an old school of thought that has been around for many years now just being dressed up in climate change garb.

A question I have yet to see addressed is the reality that wildfires pump immense amount of carbon particles into the atmosphere.  What is that impact upon climate change.  Much is decried about slash and burn in the rain forests being a contributing factor of major significance  to climate change.  If that loss of growing green atmosphere cleansing vegetation is a negative then how does that fit with a "Let Burn" policy that advocates destroying growing O2 producing vegetation and pursuing a policy that pumps vast volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.  Somehow this doesn't work.


BobFromDistrict9
BobFromDistrict9

I don't remember how many decades ago I read the reports on the exact prescriptions in the article were being applies. 


Don't you feel the need to become informed on the real current situation?

Foresthealth
Foresthealth

We need to protect our firefighters the best we can. While fires will always occur and are part of the natural landscape, there are tactics we can do to increase forest health and public safety. Thinning and prescribe fires have shown they can reduce fire severity and protect communities. BAER report shows that fuels reduction treatments not only protected the communities from fire,  but created access to the fire for firefighters to attack the flames.

People depend on the forests no matter how far away they live. The Rim Fire threatened the water and power supply to the Bay Area including San Francisco. As our population grows so will our dependency on healthy forests.


FrankieRobbins
FrankieRobbins

Except for the climate change element, this story is 25 years behind the times. Since the Yellowstone NP fire of 1988; the U.S. Forest Service policy has been to let burn where property and lives were not threatened; and use prescribed burns to reduce the fuels buildup and fire hazard.The focus now is protecting lives and properties. The ever increasing urban wild-land interface has been a major concern for the last 25 years as well. Climate change has certainly contributed to the "intensity" of the fires. For example, in Colorado, the many acres of beetle killed trees in combination with a long term drought made for an inferno this last summer.

carvinae185
carvinae185

Restrict access to dry forests just like we restrict access to unsafe beaches and avalanche-prone slopes.

Adam_Smith
Adam_Smith

"Wildfires have always been a natural part of forest ecology, especially in the dry American West. The occasional small fire prevents forests from becoming overgrown, clearing old vegetation out for new growth. But if you try to smother every wildfire that breaks out—which is what the U.S. Forest Service does now—that vegetation keeps growing and growing, adding more potential fuel to the next fire. And that raises the chances of a megafire, one of the devouring infernos—like the wildfire that threatened Yosemite National Park in California earlier this summer—that truly can kill."

I could not help but be struck by how similar this sounds to a plausible explanation of how our economic situation has developed. One could say that recessions are a natural part of a market economy especially in under capitalized debt dependent sectors. The occasional minor recession prevents debt from becoming a drain upon disposable income clearing the way for new growth in household demand. But if you smother every dip in GDP with monetary stimulus -- which is what the U.S. Federal Reserve did during the "Great Moderation" -- that debt keeps growing and growing, adding more weight to the next downturn. And that raises the chances of a Great Recession, one of major bankruptcies -- like that of Detroit last month -- that can destroy livelihoods and retirements.

We are most certainly dealing with a general phenomenon of the inadequate attention to the long run risks and costs of near term pain avoidance.


LeslieGraham
LeslieGraham

@carvinae185 

Don't know if the same principle would apply to US forests but here in the UK we found that when the forests were opened up much more to the public we actualy had LESS fire damage because for every walking fire-hazard there were a dozen responsible citizens following on behind who either extinguished the fire before it got a hold or reported it promptly to the fire-fighting headquarters.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@Adam_Smith Here's where you analogy falls apart.  Downturns and recessions, on their own, cannot kill anyone, but fires can and do so, with increasing frequency..

BobFromDistrict9
BobFromDistrict9

@Adam_Smith  

The fact that you are hijacking a commentary on a completely unrelated subject to push your narrow agenda is contemptible. 

 You disgrace the name of the man you chose to use as your online identity. 

 Not to mention the incredible stupidity of your analysis, but I won't mention that. 

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

@Adam_Smith You make a great point. I was thinking it reminds me of the war on drugs. A long expensive war that we can't win.  We seem to keep fighting in part to keep the war fighters employed. Once something becomes institutionalized in the government mindset, it's hard to defund.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@LeslieGraham @carvinae185 That sounds like the perfect remedy in the US, provided that they can get people to relocate their homes away from danger areas.  After all, Americans like to think of themselves as rugged individuals, capable of doing everything on their own.

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

@BobFromDistrict9 @Adam_Smith I didn't hijack the commentary to promote an agenda.  Like the war on drugs, we fight wildfires not because we should but because we employ an army of people to do so.  Fighting every blaze just let's the combustible material build up to the point that fires become impossible to fight. Fire is a natural process. Suppressing wildfires is bad policy from an economic sense as well as from a biological viewpoint.  As for the War on Drugs, it is a failed policy. We continue it in part because we have a large drug fighting apparatus that has taken on a life of its own. It continues to exist because it exists. The original purpose no longer matters.  

As someone with a strong Finance and Economics background, I think Adam_Smith offered a great point of view.

As for your comments to Adam_Smith & I, Ad Hominem is a sign of a weak argument or a weak mind. The internet is full of people like you. They throw aspersions from the sidelines, nothing to add... can only detract.



LeslieGraham
LeslieGraham

@JohnDavidDeatherage @Adam_Smith 

The drug dealers would all be out of business if drugs were legalised.

Not so sure about legalising heroin or cocaine but it's just absurd that marijuana is still illegal 70 years after the end of prohibition. It was the distillers and brewers that insisted it be made illegal in the first place to protect the alchohol business. If anything the booze bosses could do with all the competition we can raise. Especialy as not one single person ever died from a marijuana overdose.