In the last few months we have seen what might be the most destructive wildfires in this nation’s recorded history. There have been times when it seemed like the entire West was on fire. Dozens of fires plagued California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
And they’re not done yet.
Drought has been announced as the main culprit behind the blazes. But Scott Stephens — a wild land resource scientist from the University of California at Berkley — told Science magazine that’s not totally true. In his mind the real cause is forest mismanagement.
Stephens said there are now five-times as many trees in the forests in the West and if some of the smaller fires we’ve seen in the last 20-years would have been allowed to burn free, the forests would not be so dense with underbrush. That’s the fuel that sends flames to the canopy and fire in the treetops sends embers to other trees and causes the blaze to accelerate.
He said California’s Valley fire is a good example. It has destroyed 1,200 homes and killed three people. And the damage isn’t done yet. Stephens said neglect — failure to thin trees and clear underbrush — is where fingers need to be pointed.
And to be blunt, Stephens said the damage isn’t finished. We’re going to continue to see record destruction — this year, next and so on — until the forests are properly managed.
Stephens and other forest experts say from 1998 to 2008 the U.S. Forest Service and other entities were reluctant to let smaller fires burn. Fear of property loss and injury are the reason. Less than half of 1% were allowed to do their thing. That preserves the fuel for the next fire and makes the next fire more destructive.
And the Forest Service has to extinguish them because it has no budget for the management techniques just discussed.
Stephens and others are wanting change. The federal government in 2014 spent $3 billion putting fires out. That’s five-times the amount of 20-years ago. This year the expense will be even greater.
States spending in 2014 was $1.6 billion.
There is good news in all this bad news. The Obama administration is changing the strategy. In 2014 it created a new fire management strategy to do more thinning and for setting controlled fires in moderate weather. This won’t occur in areas where people are living but in more remote areas.
And in more remote areas, fires will be allowed to burn and take their natural course. However, they will not burn without observation.
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