Burning Problems

by Tracy R. Walsh


According to Brian Mockenhaupt, decades of aggressive fire-fighting efforts have left the West more prone to blazes than before:

During [the Great Depression], the Forest Service decided that every wildfire in the country should be put out by the morning after it was reported. The country had the manpower to try. This new approach coincided with the onset of several cool, wet decades, which aided the effort: forests weren’t as dry, so they grew more and didn’t burn as often. Smoke jumpers joined the fight, first parachuting into a fire in 1940, and after World War II their ranks swelled with veterans who had made combat jumps across Europe. After the war ended, firefighters also had surplus military trucks and bulldozers at their disposal, and by the mid-’50s they were using helicopters and retired military airplanes to drop water and flame retardant on fires. …

It seemed like a great success story:

Americans were fighting fire, just as they had fought their military enemies, and they were winning. But when wildfires don’t burn regularly, fuels simply accumulate, and bigger fires become inevitable—something policy makers took decades to recognize. “What they didn’t see at the time,” says Don Falk, a forest-and-fire ecologist at the University of Arizona, “is that fire is inevitable. You can defer it, but it’s a pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later scenario. There’s no fire-free scenario.” We’re paying for that blindness now. Across the West, enormous swaths of forest and shrubland are loaded with decades’ worth of built-up fuel.

Plumer passes along the above chart:

Costs are going up partly because the wildfires themselves are getting bigger. But it’s also a function of the fact that more and more people are living in fire-prone areas. In Colorado, for example, some 250,000 new residents have settled into the fire-prone “red zone” over the past two decades. … Right now, Congress gives agencies like the US Forest Service a budget for fire suppression that’s based on the average cost of wildfires over the previous 10 years. Of course, if wildfires are getting bigger over time, that’s going to create constant shortfalls.