_________________ An incendiary situation is rising in the West’s wildlands – but it’s not just wildfire. It’s the explosion in the number of homes and structures in highly flammable landscapes and climate change-driven conditions that are leading to a public policy crisis.
We need to revisit our commitment to military-scale fire-fighting at massive taxpayer expense as well as federal, state and local policies that promote development into the West’s “fireplains.” As we recover from the largest single wildfire recorded in New Mexico history as well as the most destructive to homes and communities, we must consider effective and economical solutions.
Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman, Mont.-based think tank, points out the tremendous development potential in the West for the remaining 86 percent of forested private land adjacent to public land – known as wildland urban interface, or the red zone.
It calculated the astronomical costs of battling these fires. If homes were built in just half of the red zone, annual firefighting costs could range from $2.3 billion to $4.3 billion per year.
Here in New Mexico, Bernalillo, Lincoln and Otero counties have the largest portions of their red zone already developed. Sadly, these are foreseeable and expensive disasters.
A paradigm shift in how people live in fire-prone landscapes is upon us, similar to floodplain regulation in the 1970s. Insurers are taking notice, and so should county policymakers examine their building codes.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano stated last week at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, “Though the number of fires across the country is actually less than last year, and the acreage burned is less than last year, the number of structures and infrastructure burned is significantly higher, and that’s in part because of where the fires have been, and the growth of the wildland-urban interface.”
The latest science suggests weather and climatic conditions, rather than fuels, drive the large fires we are now witnessing. But despite all the rhetoric about “historic” fire seasons, the total acreage burned over the last decade, 7 million acres on average, is quite low by historic standards. Over 140 million acres burned annually in the U.S. in pre-industrial times. As recently as the 1930s Dust Bowl years, the number was close to 40 million acres. The past 50-70 years may actually be an abnormality in terms of acreage burned as well as fire severity.
Any single year’s fire activity, according to recent science, is related more closely to high temperatures than to previous fire suppression efforts, age of trees, or other factors. Higher spring temperatures, especially, lead to more fires. Scientists have found that the period from 1987-2004, compared to the 16 years prior to that, averaged a longer fire season, by two and a half months, four times as many fires, a fivefold increase in the time needed to put out a wildfire, and 6.7 times as much area being burned.
We simply cannot fireproof forests, but we can fireproof homes and structures. Thinning and logging far into the backcountry forests may or may not have any effect on saving communities in the red zone. But with changing climate and recurring droughts of biblical proportion, it’s a safe bet that expensive thinning and logging will not make a difference under such extreme conditions. In fact, it could make the fire hazard even worse.
When people build and live in the “fireplain,” it’s not the federal government’s responsibility to look after them.
In addition, we cannot ask taxpayers to foot the bill for costly thinning of public forests far from home in an uncertain attempt to change fire behavior. Homeowners must be required to treat their own landscapes and build with fire-resistant materials: a proven practice known as Firewise.
Western forests have burned since time immemorial, and this natural process is both intimidating and worsening with climate change. But we do not have a wildfire problem as much as a people in flammable landscapes problem.