Wildfire Epidemic Leaves States Searching for Answers

  • December 11, 2012
  • By Jim Malewitz
Destroyed homes sit beside a house left untouched in a neighborhood hit by the Waldo Canyon wildfire this past June in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Getty)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — To some people living in the drought-scorched American West, it may seem like the fires will never stop raging.

Months after forests and grasslands in much of the region usually cease smoldering for the year, smoke still wafts across parts of Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. Hundreds of residents living nearby have returned to their homes, but firefighters have not fully contained the blaze, which they hope will be the last in Colorado's worst fire season ever. 

At one point this summer, 14 major fires were ripping through the state simultaneously. They included Colorado's most devastating single fire in history, the 29-square-mile Waldo Canyon fire, which devoured 350 homes in just four hours.

The destruction “was beyond any movie set you could imagine,” Governor John Hickenlooper told a panel of Western governors here recently.

Wildfires have scorched almost 9.2 million acres of U.S. land this year, the third largest one-year burn in the country's recorded history. They've claimed lives, destroyed homes, killed animals and ravaged their habitats, spewing toxins that settle in water and on land. The fires have pushed government resources to their limits, and in some cases beyond them.

Ongoing budgetary struggles and the reality that the West is getting hotter and drier, stoking more frequent and destructive fires, are prompting fire officials to ponder ways to pack a better punch with fewer dollars.

“We've got to do more with less,” says Harris Sherman, undersecretary for natural resources and the environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tight Budgets

The federal government has spent about $1.45 billion on fire suppression this year, according to the Department of Agriculture, far surpassing a budget of $950 million. Most of that money, however, has been spent reacting to fires, leaving fewer dollars for prevention efforts.

Of the 193 million acres of forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service, as many as 82 million need to be treated to lower the fire risk. But it can cost $2,000 per acre to remove the buildup of fire-fueling materials, such as felled logs, certain grasses and low-lying branches.

“They're spending so much fighting fires that they don't have the resources to prevent them,” Rod Nichols, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, told Stateline.

In Oregon, says Nichols, it's not uncommon for out-of control fires that start on federal lands to jump onto private lands, meaning the state has to pitch in its scarce resources — using money the federal government does not reimburse.

Through mid-August, more than 1,000 fires in Utah had cost the state about $16 million — more than five times what the legislature had allocated, the Associated Press reported earlier this year.  Washington State spent $19.8 million suppressing fires, far surpassing its $11.2 million budget.

In Idaho, where fire tore through 1.25 million acres of land this year, federal and state agencies combined to spend about $200 million. “This impacts any governor's budget,” says Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter. “That's less money that I have for social services. That's less money I have for education.”

In Oregon, officials are trying to save on long term costs by attacking small fires aggressively from the outset — with fire engines, bulldozers and hand crews, often supported by water-carrying helicopters and air tankers that drop fire retardant — in hopes of squelching the fires before they become more destructive and costly. Proposed legislation would bolster those initial resources.

“If we can allow even one fewer large fire, that frees up the potential to save millions of dollars,” Nichols says.  

But as budget struggles continue in several states, more firefighting resources — even those meant to cut long-term costs — may not be an option.

Western governors have asked for more federal help, requesting that Congress fully restore the federal government's “Flame Fund,” which was set up in 2009 to ensure the Forest Service had enough money to fight fires without tapping into funds for other programs. That account has run dry, following the 2011 debt standoff and subsequent budget cuts.

But with Congress still wrangling over how to avoid going over its self-made ‘‘fiscal cliff,'' few if any officials are expecting it to deliver more help.

Shifting Climate

They can't count on Mother Nature to deliver long-term relief, either. Hot, dry weather continues to grip much of the U.S., with the West bearing the brunt of it. As the climate continues to change, researchers expect those fire-stoking conditions to worsen.

“We are seeing the fire season today last two months longer,” says Sherman, the Department of Agriculture undersecretary.

A study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that rising temperatures will likely cause more fires across most of North America and Europe over the next 30 years.

“In the long run, we found what most fear — increasing fire activity across large parts of the planet,” said lead author Max Moritz, upon the study's release in June. “But the speed and extent to which some of these changes may happen is surprising.”

What's more, wildfires — at least in some part — are contributing to climate change.

In the western U.S., wildfires release as much as 1.3 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted from burning fossil fuels, according to a study from the U.S. Geological Survey, released last week. Those emissions are expected to increase by as much as 80 percent over the next four decades. But more worrisome are the carbon-storing forests, grasslands and shrub lands that are being burned away.

With more stable conditions, regrowth of that plant life would keep up with fires, maintaining storage capacity, says Todd Hawbaker, a geologist who worked on the USGS study. But with fires growing more frequent and intense, and development still shifting into forests, the West could lose much of that capacity.

Western ecosystems — those between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast — store about 100 million tons of greenhouse cases, about 5 percent of total U.S. emissions estimated for 2010, according to the study. On average, fires currently eat up about 11.6 percent of that capacity each year, but by 2050, the area burned could grow by as much as 86 percent.

Pointing Fingers at the Feds

But Western lawmakers, particularly Republicans who don't believe climate change is something policymakers can effectively attack, point to more immediate issues that may be sparking the uptick in fires — namely, federal land management. That includes provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act, which Otter, the Idaho governor, calls the “silent killer.”

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adds species to its endangered lists, the lawmakers complain, that limits how officials can manage the lands, causing fuels to build up. In some cases, fire may destroy the protected species' habitat anyway.

Western lawmakers are bemoaning the proposed listing of the greater sage grouse, a pointed-tail bird, which lost about 2.5 million acres of its habitat to wildfire this year. “The largest threat to the greater sage grouse and the potential for its listing is wildfire,” says Otter.

Some westerners also complain about policy that limits grazing on public lands, potentially leading to more fuel buildup.

“Livestock grazing makes a difference,” declares Bert Brackett, a rancher and state senator in Idaho, who says he lost land in a 2007 Southern Idaho blaze. “The Western Governors need to intervene.”

Collaboration

Sherman, of the Agriculture Department, says federal agencies are adapting to the sobering budget and climate realities, trying to gain efficiencies. That includes unfurling prevention efforts on larger areas at once, helping officials to save time and money by doing broader — but fewer — environmental assessments.

Sherman, like state lawmakers, calls for more collaboration on wildfires, whether it's among state, federal and local agencies, or with companies that have a vested interest in reducing wildfire damage.

Insurance companies, for instance, could incentivize fire prevention efforts on private lands through higher rates for those who live in the wild urban interface, along with incentives for fire prevention efforts.  State and local agencies could team up with utility companies, which have become increasingly concerned about fire damage to their infrastructure.

“We simply have to work together,” Sherman says.

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