So far this year, wildfires have burned almost 9 million acres and destroyed over 4000 structures (many of them homes) across the United States, amid warnings from climate scientists that fire frequency will increase in the American West as the planet warms. As this year’s fire season, one of the worst on record, comes to an end, we look back not only on the fires themselves, but on tense discussions about how we manage forests and fires.
Scientists’ understanding of the role fire plays on the landscape has changed over time. Frequent fires are thought to reduce fuel loads and reduce the risk of large fires. But for decades it was standard procedure to suppress all forest fires. According to many, this has led to a build-up of hazardous fuels in many of America’s forests. The argument then follows that many large recent fires are a result of these forests full flammable materials. Many also point to large stands of dead trees killed by pests such as the bark beetle as a new source of fuel. Increasingly, forest managers are letting fires burn, or starting prescribed fires to alleviate that pressure (though some recent studies challenge this paradigm).
But this year, the Forest Service was faced with so many fires that it announced, for financial reasons, it was going to stamp out every fire, even remote ones that posed no immediate threat to human life or property. The FY2013 continuing resolution helped by restoring funds to the FLAME account.
Earlier this year a number of bills were proposed in congress aimed at changing forest management. Rep. Scott Tipton’s (R-CO) Health Forestry Management Act of 2012 (H.R. 6089) passed through the House Natural Resources Committee in early August but has not been on the agenda of the full House yet. The bill expands the expedited NEPA review process and ‘good neighbor’ provisions of the 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act that allows state foresters working on state lands to apply treatments on adjacent federal lands. In addition, it gives governors the authority to designate “high-risk areas” where the Forest Service would be required to implement emergency fuel-reduction measures. The Obama administration and most democrats oppose the bill (one committee democrat voted for it), worried that it gives too much authority to the states over federal lands.
Competing bills that did not pass muster in the Senate included H.R. 5960 sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), which would allow the agencies to designate portions of watersheds that were having disease or insect epidemics and speed up improvement projects.
Even the technology we use to fight wildfires has been subject to public debate this summer, as congress passed a law allowing the Forest Service to expedite the process of awarding contracts to build air tankers. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) sponsored a bill to transfer tankers from the Department of Defense to be used for fighting wildfires, and a report commissioned by the Forest Service suggested relying more heavily on fast-acting scooper aircraft.
The cooler fall weather, and in some places rains, are bringing this wildfire season to a close and people are beginning to rebuild, but these policy choices will affect us for future fire season. This is important as climate change and bark beetles continue to keep the risk for wildfires high.
Sources: E&E Publishing (E&E News PM August 1, 2012), The Washington Post (October 7, 2012), Reuters (June 12, 2012), The New York Times (September 17, 2012), NBC News (August 17, 2012), News New Mexico (June 13, 2012)