Megafires of the Future Will Burn ‘Bigger, Brighter, and Longer’

The size and intensity of wildfires due to climate change is forcing the US Forest Service to siphon funds from wilderness restoration programs.

Climate change and outdated forest management practices are fueling “bigger, brighter, and longer” wildfires that are consuming taxpayer dollars at a record clip, a leading conservation group warns.

The United States has seen a sharp increase in the size and intensity of wildfires in the past decade due to a warming climate, according to a new report from the National Wildlife Federation. And battling those “megafires” is now eating up more than half the budget of the US Forest Service, NWF President Collin O’Mara said — forcing the agency to shift extra money toward the fire lines.

“Every dollar they’re spending is coming from other programs, many of which are restoration programs that actually improve forest health and reduce the threat of fires in the future,” O’Mara said. “So we’re not only spending billions of dollars fighting fires, we’re not investing in the very things that can make communities more safe in the years ahead.”

More than 8.5 million acres have burned in 2017, including the 200,000-plus-acre northern California wildfires that have killed more than 40 people this month. Over a million acres have been destroyed by fire across Montana this summer. Two firefighters died battling the Montana fires, which shrouded much of the state in an acrid cloud of smoke from July through September.

“There’s not actually a category for how thick that smoke was,” said Sarah Coefield, an air-quality specialist at the Missoula City-County Health Department. Visibility at times was less than a block, and only a “random, freak September snow” helped firefighters quench the blazes.

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It’s not a record year in terms of acreage — in 2015, more than 10 million acres were ablaze — but they’ve been the most expensive to fight. The Forest Service says its firefighting costs topped $2.4 billion in the past year.

“The fires we’re seeing today, and we started to see probably about a decade ago, are not the types of fires we saw for the previous 20 or 30 years,” said Brad Powell, a former ranger and Forest Service official who now leads the Arizona Wildlife Federation. “We occasionally would have large catastrophic fires in the past, but those are common occurrences today … they‘re two to three times bigger, and the damage is significant.”

The NWF report links the boom in big fires to climate change, which is bringing earlier springs, hotter summers, and prolonged drought that leaves fuels tinder-dry. Invasive pests like the pine bark beetle are weakening or killing large stands of trees across the West. And while forest managers are now more likely to recognize the natural role of fire in the ecosystem and focus less on stamping out every blaze, years of old fire-suppression practices have left many woodlands overgrown and primed to burn.

“Our future is going to be different from the past, and we have to begin to consider how we manage that issue,” John Tubbs, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, told reporters on an Oct. 19 conference call about the report.

And while the biggest problems are out West, the report found the Southeast is seeing more fires like the one that swept out of the Smoky Mountains and into the resort town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, last November, killing 14 people and torching hundreds of homes.

The Forest Service started ringing the alarm in 2015, pointing out that climate change is leading to longer fire seasons and drier woodlands. In 1995, it spent about 15 percent of its budget on firefighting; by 2021, it’s expected to be two-thirds. And under current law, the agency has to start pulling funds from other programs — like preventing forest fires — when a bad year hits. That “fire borrowing” resulted in a $580 million shift toward firefighting in the 2017 budget year.

Both the Obama administration and now the Trump administration have called for that to change. A bipartisan group of Western senators has lined up behind a bill that would provide designated disaster funding for wildfires, urging Senate leaders to include it in the disaster relief bill expected to come up for a vote soon.

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The problem has also led to calls for more logging in timber-heavy states like Montana, with advocates arguing that thinning overgrown forests will make it less likely that a fire will become catastrophic. Tubbs said logging is also a revenue source for conservation programs in his state.

But while logging may be a part of the management solution, “it has to be careful, well thought-out logging,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of the Seattle-based Conservation Northwest. Harvesting resilient old-growth trees, leaving smaller trees and fuel behind on the forest floor, and building roads into the backcountry that give more people access to the backcountry “can actually make matters worse,” he said.

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