Our nation’s wildfire policy is a result of the Great Fire of 1910. Also known as the “Big Blowup,” the fire consumed over 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho, and Montana in just two days. The U.S. Fire Service responded to the tragedy by adopting a policy that held the department responsible for preventing and extinguishing all wildfires. According to a new study conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder, this policy of total fire suppression is no longer sufficient enough to protect our homes and ecosystems as wildfire seasons are becoming drier, hotter, and much longer.
The study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was led by a team of wildfire experts who are urging lawmakers to update our wildfire policy. The researchers express an immediate need to reform the code in ways that will help us begin to better prepare for wildfires. The team urges that, like other natural disasters, we cannot control these wildfires and so we must learn to adapt.
Tania Schoennagel is a research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, an adjunct faculty member in the University’s Geography department, and the lead author of the study. “For a long time, we’ve thought that if we try harder and do better, we can get ahead of wildfire and reduce the risks,” explains Schoennagel. “We can no longer do that. This is bigger than us and we’re going to have to adapt to wildfire rather than the other way around.”
The solutions proposed by the research team are controversial. The team recommends allowing wildfires to burn in unoccupied areas instead of extinguishing them. The group also advises in favor of “controlled burns,” or intentionally-set fires in more developed areas. They believe these actions will minimize future disasters by helping ecosystems adapt to wildfire. The scientists also stress the need for more forest-thinning projects that help to eliminate fuel while restoring areas for regrowth.
The study reveals that we have entered into a “new era of western wildfires” that is brought on by longer and hotter wildfire seasons in the western part of the United States. Since the 1970’s, the average temperature of this region has jumped two degrees Celsius, while the wildfire season has extended by nearly three months. Furthermore, a record number of homes are being built in fire-prone areas. This makes the fire risk here not only much more dangerous, but also more costly.
Currently, federal taxpayers cover the rising expense of wildfire containment, which is now averaging $2 billion a year. The team urges that some of these costs must be distributed to state and county departments. Researchers say this will result in more accountability on the state and county levels to establish fire-proof building codes and take other much-needed precautions to keep residents in high-risk areas safe.
Max Moritz is a fire scientist the University of California Cooperative Extension and a co-author on the paper. “We need the foresight to help guide these ecosystems in a healthy direction now so they can adjust in pace with our changing climate,” says Moritz. “That means embracing some changes while we have a window to do so.”