Adapted from the Nicholas School of the Environment's DukEnvironment Magazine Fall 2013
Over the last decade, wildland fires have burned an area of 12 Western states that's about equivalent to the state of Wisconsin, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).
Wildfires like we’re seeing today—that burn hotter, spread faster and occur more frequently than they might naturally—are the unintended legacy of years of misguided fire management practices, says Norman L. Christensen Jr., research professor and founding dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment.
There used to be a dream home in a lovely forest on this hillside west of Fort Collins, Colorado.(Photo by Scottee Cantrell, Nicholas School)
Despite federal, state, local and tribal fire-suppression that cost more than $22 billion over the last decade, these fires also killed nearly 200 people, including 113 firefighters, and damaged or destroyed an estimated 50,000 homes and other structures.
The outlook for future fire seasons is no less sobering.
The National Research Council predicts that the average area burned annually in the West could quadruple for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit of temperature increase. By mid-century, the IPCC projects summer temperatures in the region could increase by 3.6 F to 9 F.
“If you do the math, it’s a truly terrifying prospect,” Christensen says. “But there are ways to reduce future risks.”
Christensen has studied the role of fire in Western ecosystems for more than 40 years. He helped draft new fire management policies for the National Park Service following the 1988 wildfires that burned nearly 800,000 acres in Yellowstone National Park, and testified before Congress in 2003 on the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, which removed administrative barriers to cutting timber on fire-prone public lands, ostensibly to reduce fuel loads.
Periodic low-intensity wildfires used to be a natural and beneficial part of the Western landscape. They promoted healthy new growth by thinning overcrowded trees and clearing away grasses, shrubs and dead wood. Healthy mature trees of many Western species are naturally adapted to survive natural fires.
For much of the past century, however, government agencies have suppressed these fires to protect nearby homes and property. They’ve tried to reduce excess fuel loads on some fire-prone public lands by allowing logging and grazing there, instead.
But these efforts, intended to create “fireproof forests,” have backfired, Christensen says.
Without the cleansing force of fire, forests across much of the West have grown too dense and their fuel loads have built up to dangerous levels.
Norman Christensen (Nicholas School)
Adding insult to injury, many overcrowded pine forests, particularly in the Rockies and Southwest, have been attacked by bark beetle infestations exacerbated by recent drought and warmer winters. Infestations have spread across more than 80 million acres, killing more than 70 percent of susceptible trees in some areas. These trees pose a higher fire risk until they shed their dead needles.
“Many forests are more flammable now than they were before, increasing the risk that any fires that break out today have the potential to cause much greater damage,” Christensen says.
With no relief in sight, government must reprioritize how and where its fire management dollars are spent, he and other experts say.
A good place to start, they agree, would be rethinking how we manage the forests themselves.
From the Ground Up
“We need to bring Western landscapes back to a point where fire can safely resume its natural role in wildland ecology,” says Monique E. Rocca, an associate professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University who earned her Ph.D. in ecology in 2004 from the Nicholas School.
“Fires in Western forests are not going to be stopped or ‘managed away,’” Rocca explains. “Most of our forests have large enough fuel loads and frequent enough dry-season climate conditions that fire is inevitable. And the increased incidence of drought that’s forecast for coming decades only makes wildfire more likely.”
Our best bet for reducing the odds of catastrophic fires is to implement land management practices targeted specifically at removing the most hazardous fuels from the forests at highest risk.
“There needs to be a higher priority placed on the safe reintroduction of fire into the areas that have been most dramatically altered since European settlement,” Rocca says. These areas, which include many dry pine forests in the Rockies and Southwest, contain uncharacteristically heavy fuel build-up on the ground and in the tree canopies. When wildfires occur under dry, windy conditions they burn so intensely that they often kill very large swaths of trees.”
Burnt logs are felled and laid across the slope to prevent erosion after a fire.(Photo by Scottee Cantrell)
“Ignited surface fuels such as dry grasses, pine needles and shrubs can create enough heat to scorch a tree up to a height of 150 feet,” Christensen explains. Strategically placed prescribed burns would help remove these fuels, thin the overcrowded understories, and restore natural spacing between trees. This could help avert long-term ecological devastation from future fires, especially in Ponderosa pine forests, which are adapted to survive low-severity fire but do not regenerate quickly after trees have been killed.
Prohibiting indiscriminate logging on fire-prone lands also should be a priority.
“Policymakers have often viewed logging as a way to remove dead and diseased wood, and reduce fuel loads,” Christensen says. “But indiscriminate logging aggravates the problem by littering a fire-prone forest’s floor with slash and other combustible debris, and thinning its canopy.” The regrowth that follows this logging can be quite flammable, and the loss of canopy increases wind speeds and air temperatures, allowing fires to spread faster and farther than they would normally.
By reducing fuel loads and restoring a more natural spacing to over-dense forests, managers can help reduce the risk that devastating megafires might break out and threaten nearby development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where many of the fatalities occur as firefighters try to protect private property.
At the federal level, some experts are calling for Congress to limit the mortgage-interest deduction for homes built in especially vulnerable regions or require homeowners to buy federal fire insurance.
Support for such reforms is coming from both sides of the political divide.
“In Colorado, one of our most liberal counties, Boulder County, and one of our most conservative, El Paso County, have both passed tougher land-use rules and fire standards,” notes Jill Ozarski, natural resources advisor to Sen. Mark Udall. Ozarski received a Master of Environmental Management degree from the Nicholas School in 2001.
“Protecting lives and property and controlling the costs associated with fire suppression and protection, is a bipartisan concern,” she says.
Despite the policy errors of the past and the troubling trends of Western wildfire, there is still reason for hope. "We’re smarter than we used to be,” Christensen says. “A concerted, region-wide management plan that takes into account local differences and targets the most hazardous fuels can’t bring back the lives, homes and communities already lost. It might, however, make a difference in the future.”
Tim Lucas is senior writer for Dukenvironment magazine and is the Nicholas School’s director of marketing communications.