We are all probably aware of Smokey the Bear’s admonishment to prevent forest fires and a recent study by Jennifer Balch et al has verified Smokey’s philosophy. Humans do cause most wildfires in the USA, “Human-started wildfires accounted for 84% of all wildfires, tripled the length of the fire season, dominated an area seven times greater than that affected by lightning fires, and were responsible for nearly half of all area burned.” Balch goes further to say, “National and regional policy efforts to mitigate wildfire-related hazards would benefit from focusing on reducing the human expansion of the fire niche.” So, it appears Smokey has to do more work to get us to prevent forest fires.
Tania Schoennagel, author of another recent paper, states, “The regional increase in wildfire since the 1970s is due to primarily to warming (that allows fuels to dry out and become more flammable), and not due to major increases in fuels in areas in mid- to high-elevation forests.” Our mid and high-elevation forests haven’t changed from historic norms; they tend towards dense forest and high fuel loads. What has changed is the role of warming on the forest by climate change and the expansion of the fire season by people starting fires in spring and (particularly in the West) fall. Not to say that humans don’t play a role in summer fires, because they do; Balch states, “the most common day for human-started fires by far was July 4th, US Independence Day, with 7,762 fires starting that day over the course of the record.” Balch goes further to say, “Public dialog and ongoing research have focused on increasing wildfire risk because of climate warming, overlooking the direct role that people play in igniting wildfires and increasing fire activity.” So, we are responsible on more than one level, indirectly by climate change and directly with individual actions by starting fires.
How do we prevent forest fires?
We should all take personal actions to reduce our individual impacts on climate change. But, the largest impact will be to reduce human caused fire ignitions. The third step is to try to protect our homes from inevitable wildfires.
The USFS focuses on fuels-based mitigation projects, which mostly consist of logging-thinning and clear-cutting. Frequently these projects transfer fuels from the canopy to the forest floor. These projects can have an effect on fire behavior, although not always as hoped. Only 1% of treated areas burn in a given year, which means that 99% of treatments never see a fire. Balch adds, “Land-use practices, such as clearing and logging, may also be creating an abundance of drier fuels, potentially leading to larger fires…” The Forest Service admits fuel reduction isn’t always the best tool in the toolbox. “Under extreme fire conditions (driven by dry fuels, topography, high wind, temperatures), some fuels treatments may not be effective,” said Reid Armstrong, quoted in a recent Boulder Weekly article.
When it comes to fire bans, dispersed shooting bans, and enforcement, the Forest Service is much less inclined to action
The standard response is that National Forest is for multi-use, although they recognize that burning down the forest is not one of the uses promoted. The bottom line is that of funding. They can get funding for logging, but have very limited funding for educational programs and enforcement personnel. Thus, the most important tool in the box for reducing forest fires, reducing human started fires, is not utilized. You can help by asking Congress to fund this specifically and by writing to the USFS and to the state & county for more funds to be spent on educating the public on the dangers of campfires, slash burns, etc.. Seasonal fire bans, rather than on and off and on again bans, would go far to help with this problem.
Wildfires will continue to increase owing to higher temperatures, changing weather patterns, and people doing stupid things in the woods. We have to adapt to this reality and focus on creating and maintaining defensible space treatments around our homes, the best approach – proven through experience and scientific studies – to help save homes exposed to out-of-control wildfires.
Act now, because it is up to you to prevent forest fires and protect your homes!