So now forest management is the problem. This is a good starting point.
Fire suppression became an issue after the million-acre fires that burned around the turn of the 20th century. The U.S. Forest Service was started in 1905 with one of the main goals of forest management, which included wildfire suppression. An active campaign started to keep wildfires to as small an acreage as possible.
As the need for wood products increased, it became more important to produce timber and protect it. Fire suppression forces were increased and a new policy of keeping fires 10 acres or less by 10 a.m. the day after starting was initiated. Then in the 1970s the size of wildfires started to increase, hence the “1972 fire plan,” where suppression resources were again greatly increased. Funny thing happened, fires continued to increase in size and complexity.
The population was starting to move out of the cities into the wild areas to experience “Nature,” building communities in forested areas. This influx overwhelmed many county planning departments uneducated in urban forest management and in many cases policies were not instituted to regulate where to build and what materials to use.
After about 50 or so years of intensive fire suppression the makeup of our forested areas changed. Until the 1940s or so, most of the West had fire-tolerant species such as ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Then non-fire-tolerant species such as white fir and hardwoods substantially encroached into the landscape. This lack of fire led to the introduction of more insects and disease, resulting in thousands of acres of dead and dying trees.
During the late 1980s and ’90s, the timber management program in the West was greatly diminished. With these programs gone or reduced there was not a need for agency personnel; many forests lost up to 70 percent of their workforce by the end of the ’90s decade, most of which supported the tactical and logistical fire suppression effort.
Meanwhile we were dealing with something called climate change, increased building in the urban interface, reduced funding, less prescribed fire and personnel downsizing. During the early ’90s we started experiencing the so-called “mega-fires” with huge acreage and structure losses. This continues to today.
State and federal wildland agencies are not specifically funded to fight urban interface fires. As some fires got larger they extended beyond state and federal boundaries into urban interface areas, forcing these agencies to take action and also rely more heavily on structural fire departments.
Today, in most areas of the West, we have created a landscape that is overgrown, full of dead and down material, unhealthy and, in some cases, not well managed. Couple this with lack of firefighting resources, poorly maintained or closed road systems, changing climate and the setup for large fires is there.
What to do? Local city and county planning must review building standards/codes in the urban Interface. There must be fire-resistant roofing, closed eaves, bridges to hold fire trucks, adequate driveway clearance, fire-resistant landscaping and defensible space.
Insurance companies need to require homeowners to meet these standards or pay higher rates. In some cases homeowners may lose their coverage. I have heard all too often, “I have insurance, so what if my house burns down!”
Federal wildland agencies need to manage timbered areas adjacent to identified high-risk populated areas. I would suggest selective harvest methods followed up with prescribed burning. Certain areas of forested lands should be brought back to historic fire intervals. A key here is maintenance funding to keep up this buffer every three to five years. Develop community wildfire protection plans and implement Fire-Wise concepts.
A different approach is needed when assessing fire suppression in unroaded or wilderness areas. These fires are more difficult to fight, usually because of steep, rugged terrain and lack of roads, making it unsafe to send firefighters in. Many times these fires grow large (Biscuit, Chetco Bar and Klondike) and are very costly (Klondike fire $95 million plus). Too often these low-priority fires become very large and costly and smoke out large areas.
It took us about 100 years to get to this condition and we cannot take another 100 years to get to a healthy, sustainable condition in our federal and state forests nor our urban interface areas. Contact your state and federal representatives and participate in local land management planning efforts. It will make a difference.
Charlie Phenix worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 38 years, including 15 on overhead teams supervising firefighting operations, served as operations chief for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest during the Biscuit fire in 2002 and spent the past 12 years with Rural Metro Fire in Josephine County. He lives in Grants Pass.