Climate, Man-Created Landscapes Feed Wildfires

The following guest post is from Bryan Bird, Wild Places Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. He writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Bird received his Masters in conservation biology from New Mexico State University in 1995 and holds an undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1990. He has undertaken conservation research, planning, and protection projects in Central America, Mexico, and the Southwestern United States. Since first working for the Guardians in 1996, Bryan has focused on restoration of national forestlands and their critical ecological processes, as well as monitoring, reviewing, and challenging destructive Forest Service logging proposals and land management plans.  – mk

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.

29 thoughts on “Climate, Man-Created Landscapes Feed Wildfires”

  1. Sorry, but we do have a “wildfire problem,” and we’ve had them in the past, too. “Changing climate” is a feeble excuse for mismanagement of public resources and is not likely a significant factor. Fuel build-ups and seasonal weather patterns fully account for these mostly preventable events. Nothing to do about the weather (changing light bulbs doesn’t seem to be helping much), but the fuel problem is an obvious starting point.

    How this somehow got turned into a Republican-Democrat debate is interesting, but mostly irrelevant. Why and how our government has dramatically limited the ability of citizens to manage their own resources are the real questions of concern with the people I talk to. And how to best fix this mess is another such question.

    Firewise is a distraction that attempts to blame the victims for the mismanagement of adjacent landowners. It seems to sort of work under the right conditions, but at an enormous cost to landowners and without any guarantees (and much counter evidence) that it will work as advertised.

    • Bob,

      It sounds like both you and Bird agree that weather is relevant to wildfires. Do you have science to support your conclusion that changing climate is not likely a significant factor in regards to wildfires? I don’t have any on changing climate. That isn’t to say that there isn’t any out there, I just haven’t looked.

      I think it is worth pointing out that while we traditionally think of Democrats as the money spenders, in this case they (or at least the author) seems to be advocating for limited government and having individuals take responsibility for their choice of living in the woods. From a purely academic standpoint the whole responsibility/victim rhetoric is quite fascinating.

      How has the government dramatically limited the ability of citizens to manage their own resources? Nothing stops people from clearing their own land. In terms of public land, it seems like HFRA allows for plenty of opportunities to log/thin. Whether the government is carrying out those projects to the extent you think is appropriate might be a different issue?

      • John: My Phd research was specific to relationships between people, climate, weather, and fuels in western Oregon and indicated that periods of prolonged drought (e.g., the 1930s) seemed to correlate to catastrophic-scale wildfires. However, there were much stronger correlations to regular seasonal weather patterns, human ignitions, and contiguous fuel patterns than anything else.

        Climate can be generally regarded as 30-year averages of weather patterns, including extremes. I have been keeping track of historic catastrophic-scale wildfire patterns in the Pacific Northwest from ca. 1750 to the present, and the seasonality of these events is unchanging. There has been no apparent change in these patterns, so far as seasonal weather is concerned, in more than 250 years.

        If the climate is changing, and if wildfires are subject to climate change, then we should be seeing prolonged fire seasons (and not prolonged because of “let it burn”) as has been predicted. But the fire seasons remain about the same as they were in the 1930s, the 1880s, or the 1770s.

        • Hi Bob, I’ve been wondering about how climate change has or has not affected fire seasons to date. I know its really tough to parcel out climate change from annual weather patterns to determine causal relationships but can you point me/us to any published research (your or others) that speaks to this? I’m genuinely curious about this topic….

          • Hi Mike:

            My own research regarding the relationship between catastrophic-scale wildfires and climate is pretty much limited to my dissertation, which focused on Oregon Coast Range fire history from 1491 to 1951. If you are interested, a poorly scanned version of this work is available online under the title “The Great Fires: etc.”

            Scientific work linking such fires to AGW (“Apocalyptic Global Warming”) in North America is probably best represented by Swetnam, who’s work since 2005 or 2006 has led the way in this regard.

            I’m not aware of any work that is specific to disproving a link between climate change and wildfire frequency and severity, but there is a LOT of work showing the predictable relationships (including seasonality) between people, fire, and fuel over time — for which I’d recommend Covington, Pyne, Anderson, and Bonnicksen.

            • Thanks Bob. I appreciate the references. As you say, the link between fuel loading, weather conditions and fire is well established and I don’t dispute that for a moment. It makes intuitive sense and is backed by decades of research. The question for me is still to what extent climate change is now exacerbating conditions (both dry and wet) that affect fire behavior and what the implications may be for forest management going forward. I’ll take a look at the cite you provided.

              Thanks Bob. Nice exchange.

  2. Bryan is one of the most vocal advocates for non-management of public lands and his organization, WildEarth Guardians, is among the leaders in the appeals and litigation that, over the past quarter century, have brought the U.S. Forest Service to its knees. Citizens of the west are now enjoying the benefits of the efforts of these environmental activists.

    While fixing the responsibility for the on-going tragedy on the victims, Bryan’s answer to the current fire problem is simple: “Don’t live near the forest”. As an alternative “…we can fireproof homes and structures”. The before and after photos of the Waldo Canyon fire offer a bitter commentary on the usefulness of “Firewise” when the big one rolls.

    As to his contention that “we simply cannot fireproof forests”, take a look at photos 2 and 3 on my webpage Maybe we can’t “fireproof” them but we certainly can make them a lot less likely to burn catastrophically, and in many cases make a profit doing so.

    • Mac: I am in 100% agreement with you — but I have been told that it is more politically correct to use the term “at no cost” to taxpayers instead of “make a profit”; even though actively managing our forests would be a very profitable enterprise — for taxpayers, too.

      (I had a hunch WildEarth Guardians were being directed by a Bird brain. This proves it.)

        • Sorry, John. I have a sophomoric sense of humor and am a sucker for bad puns. If that’s all it takes to keep you from contributing to something, though, it makes me curious what it is, exactly, that you are contributing. Other than admonitions to use more tasteful humor, of course, in which case I will keep trying to be more sensitive and understanding. (PS It is the people who post anonymously in this blog that make me not want to contribute from time to time. Talk about your cyber-manners!)

    • I don’t think he said “Don’t live near the forest.” I understood the piece to say if you live near the forest, it should be your responsibility and not the government’s to fireproof your home.

      I don’t have Cohen’s science in front of me, but I thought that some of it has said that when the big one rolls it doesn’t matter if you have thinned or not, homes are going to burn either way. I’d like to hear what Cohen or other fire researchers have to say about the Waldo fire. Was the fire considered a “big one?” Was the area around the homes fireproofed? Did the fire catch each home on fire, or did they burn from home to home? Does that matter when we are talking about wildfires? Is it too early to point to the Waldo Fire and say Firewise doesn’t work?

  3. Of course, costs could be dramatically reduced if we stopped turning $3000 lightning fires into $30,000,000 firestorms! I think people are finally learning this little tidbit of wisdom, by now. Letting fires burn until they get out of control has been shown to be a fiscal and ecological nightmare.

        • Crys said “If there’s no fuel, it won’t burn.” I took “no fuel” to mean creating a landscape in which nothing could burn.

          Advocating for fuels elimination projects strikes me as being different from “fuels reduction” projects. I was wondering if he thought clearcuts were the appropriate mechanism for fuel elimination projects. I also wonder if (s)he really thinks we can/should eliminate all fuels.

    • Nope, Sharon, I used the title as it appeared in the Albq Journal. And Bob Z, for the record, John has not been an anonymous poster on this blog as you claim in your comment. He’s ID’ed himself a few times. Sorry you apparently didn’t catch that. Maybe you were too busy trying to be “funny,” eh?

      • My name is John Meyer. I have a degree in biology from Missoula. I used to work for the Forest Service as a biological technician in the Flathead and Tongass. I cruised timber for them for a while too before graduating with honors from law school. I sue the Forest Service quite often now.

        • John: I just gave you a “thumbs up” for honesty. I can see why we butt heads.

          Please keep in mind that when Crys says “no fuel, no burn” it does NOT mean “clearcut” (necessarily). Think lakes, lava flows, rockface, plowed fields, Safeway parking lots, highways, glaciers, and watered lawns as a few other possibilities.

          I will not make a sophomoric joke or bad pun here. You’re welcome!

          • Thanks Bob–I really appreciate that.

            In the context of this thread I don’t think that Crys was referring to people living next to safeway parking lots when (s)he made the no fuel comment; it seemed more geared towards the thinning debate. I could certainly be wrong, and that was why I was asking for clarification.

            Have a great night.

  4. My sense from what I’ve read about the impacts of climate change are that we are entering a brave new world these days, one in which much of the correlation between fuel-reduction and fire behavioral may be drawn into question. In other words, what this article seems to point out is that climate and weather are now confounding the whole fire management business, throwing in a lot more unknowns into the equation. As such,its not too far a stretch to suggest that predicting fire behavior based upon fuel conditions will be increasingly difficult to do accurately. Given this reality, I would suggest that homeowners (like myself) that live in close proximity or within forests in the west ought to be held fully responsible for the safety of their own property and, concomitantly, the USFS ought not the be held responsible for private property damage incurred from fires that originate National Forest lands. There are just too many factors to consider in a world increasingly under the influence of excess carbon induce climate change. I’d be curious to hear any other thoughts on this as I know my thinking is incomplete at best…

  5. In the face of a warming and drying world, if it indeed ends up that way, why on earth should we be preserving overstocked and highly flammable forests? Shouldn’t we be managing for the new climate’s resilient ecosystems, instead of preserving what we have now, which is not natural, by any means?

    • Hi Larry, I agree completely with the notion of creating more resilient forests. Yes, yes, yes. My question is whether we can draw a “straight line” between fuel reduction and greater resilience or, given climate change, whether there aren’t more factors to consider. For instance, might a reduction in forest canopy in dry forests could potentially lead to further drying in the soils if we also have reduced precipitation (especially in the form of snow pack)? On the other hand, we also know too much competition between tress for increasingly scarce or unpredictable water resources could also lead to reduced resilience. I don’t know the answers, but my larger point is that there are simply more variables to consider in this time of climate change and, given this, reducing forest biomass may or may not lead to greater forest resilience depending on site-specific conditions (which may also be in flux).

      • I have always been in favor of site-specific science, and I use it daily, with my paintgun. On Thursday, a “show-me tour” will be coming out to look at a cutting unit which we just completed today. Our local collaborative group wants to see how we are applying the various guidelines, rules, laws, policies and desires. Apparently, our marking crew is excellent but, too slow in people’s minds who don’t realize the immense complexity of applying complex science to a real-world unit….. infested with hundreds of yellowjackets’ nests, in the ground.

          • Well, I won’t be there, as my “trigger finger” is too important to allow it to be idle for a whole day. Our crew leader will participate and I’ll hear how it goes from her. The field trip is actually next Thursday, and I wonder how many people will find some bees. Of course, those who denounce the “C-words” won’t be there, instead, touching up their form letter appeals and plaintiff briefs.

            And, sadly, our part in this project seems to be ignored. They think they can hire new, untrained, temporary people every year, to accomplish the work. They have also found a way to divert funds to outside Ranger District personnel funding, by magically making new “zone” positions, and eliminating our local Ranger District positions. I understood that these collaborative projects were supposed to put LOCAL people to work. This particular collaborative effort is targeted for two specific Ranger Districts. Since they have hinted at early layoffs of our marking crew, stating fiscal uncertainties, I threw them some of my uncertainties right back in their faces. I announced to my crew leader that I would be checking into working for the other Ranger District, which has the other half of the collaborative funding. Truthfully, they are blowing smoke up my Carharts, because I KNOW they have plenty of funding. They are just trying to get more work from us lowly “disposables”, despite our excellent work. I tend to think there will be BIG trouble if they don’t accomplish this one project this year. There are still lots of acres to mark, and 87 miles of unit boundary to paint.

  6. Charles Gale here. I couldn’t agree more with this article however should we be punishing the FS or those companies/ individuals that sell land right next to FS land? Can we sue the Realtors or developer’s? I think that would be a better fight, more direct, than fatiguing and ultimately dismantling the all ready dismal FS. As a young man completely frustrated with this dire situation, why not start a new a paradigm that holds everyone accountable for their actions!

    • Well said Charles. I’d love to see the next generation bring accountability to the forefront on these issues, for all those involved.


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