Federal authorities have a new plan to protect communities in the western US from increasingly explosive infernos by fighting fire with fire. In a shift from old-fashioned firefighting strategies that attempted to eradicate naturally occurring fires, the USDA and Forest Service will focus on thinning forests to minimize “mega fires.”
The agencies today released a 10-year strategy that includes: remove trees and using “controlled burns” to reduce the amount of vegetation that feeds flames. The plan is to cover up to 20 million more acres of national forest land than is currently managed, plus work with partners to apply the tactic to an additional 30 million acres on other federal, state, tribal and private lands. All in all, it is estimated to cost $50 billion to achieve, the Associated Press reports. The USDA did not immediately respond to a request from The edge to verify that estimate.
The US “wildfire crisis” is described as a “national emergency” in the newly released 10-year implementation plan. Super-sized fires are devouring ever-larger areas. California’s 2020 fire season was record-breaking; more than 4.2 million hectares burned that year compared to the previous record of nearly 1.9 million acres in 2018. “Fire has always been a natural part of forest ecosystems, but the mega-fires we’ve experienced are unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ) said during a Press conference for the new Arizona wildfire plan today. “Today’s fires – they burn hotter and they burn longer.”
They are also much more destructive. The current five-year average number of homes and buildings destroyed by wildfires in the US has quadrupled from 2,873 in 2014 to 12,255 in 2020, according to the USDA.
According to the plan, wildfires have intensified as a result of climate change, which is warming and drying out landscapes, preparing them to burn. More urban expansion in fire-prone areas also plays a role. That’s especially true of historic firefighting strategies that have helped turn today’s arid landscapes into tinderboxes full of fuel.
Before European settlers arrived, some Native American tribes, such as the Karuk tribe in California, had a practice of intentionally starting controlled fires. The method reduced the amount of tinder on forest floors so that when uncontrolled fires sparked, they didn’t burn as intensely. California, the state that loses the most structures to forest fires, recently adopted measures that create more “cultural burns” that tribesmen might have earlier facing fines and criminal charges.
Now, authorities plan to expand similar practices to quell conflagration. “We are not talking about stopping fires. We’re talking about that fire should behave as it does its natural job in the landscape,” Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said at today’s news conference.
Their new efforts will be concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, California’s Sierra Nevada, and the Southwest. They will settle in ‘risky’ areas where wildfires pose the greatest threat to humans. According to the USDA, less than 10 percent of fire-prone forests are responsible for as much as 80 percent of fire risk to communities.
The bipartisan infrastructure law passed last November will help get the 10-year plan off the ground with about $3 billion in much-needed funding. But that’s not even enough to make an almost $6 billion backlog of deferred maintenance. “There simply aren’t the resources being developed and allocated to the forest service to do everything we wanted to do,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at today’s news conference. “So we needed the jumpstart.”