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)