As California Burns

by Chas Danner

Rim Fire Continues To Burn Near Yosemite National Park

Lindsay Abrams offers an update on the Chicago-sized wildfire that is laying siege to Yosemite Park:

The so-called Rim Fire first began on August 17, but the extremely hot and dry conditions have caused it to become one of the largest wildfires in California’s history, and a new peak of what’s already been a destructive season for the Western United States.  While at least 12,000 acres of northwest Yosemite have been destroyed, a [spokeswoman] for the U.S. Fire Service told CNN, there’s been little impact on the more popular tourist areas. A more pressing concern, the Associated Press reports, may be the mountain communities north of the park, dried out from two years of drought and to which the fire is quickly approaching. So far, there have been no deaths or injuries and only minimal property damage; the focus right now is on protecting the state’s natural and energy resources[.]

The 234 square-mile fire is currently 15% contained, but is still threatening San Francisco’s water supply and power grid. Earlier this summer, James West foretold events like the Rim Fire, as well as many more in the years ahead:

We can expect “as much as a fourfold increase in parts of the Sierra Nevada and California” in fire activity across the rest of this century, says Matthew Hurteau, assistant professor of ecosystem science and management at Pennsylvania State University. It’s a trend likely to continue: A 2012 study in Ecosphere, the peer-reviewed journal of the Ecological Society of America, found a high level of agreement that climate change will fundamentally alter fire patterns across vast swaths of the globe by 2100. While some areas around the equator will see fewer fires, there will be striking increases in high altitude boreal fires in the Northern Hemisphere. Fire will even reach a thawing Arctic, which will be more capable of growing plants to burn.

Katie Valentine points out that as a consequence of the sequestration, the US Forest Service has already had to reallocate funds from other areas to combat this summer’s wildfires:

As of [last] Wednesday, the agency was down to $50 million after spending $967 million this year on fighting wildfires. So far in 2013, 33,000 wildfires have burned in the Western U.S., spanning 5,300 square miles and destroying 960 homes and 30 commercial buildings.

This year is the second consecutive year and the sixth year since 2002 that the Forest Service has had to divert funds for fighting fires. The Forest Service’s wildfire fighting budget was slashed by $115 million by automatic, across-the-board sequester cuts that went into effect earlier this year. In addition, a wildfire reserve fund created in 2009, known as the FLAME Act has dropped from $413 million in 2010 to $299 million this year after sequestration. These cuts come as costs to fight wildfires each year are soaring: during the 1990s, the federal government spent less than $1 billion a year fighting wildfires, but since 2002, it’s spent a yearly average of more than $3 billion.

In addition to climate change, Brad Plumer highlights another reason firefighting costs are rising:

The number of people living in fire-prone areas has grown dramatically. Some 250,000 new residents have settled in Colorado’s “red zone” over the past two decades, for instance. Not only can that increase the odds of a fire starting in the first place, but more crucially, it increases the cost of suppression, as firefighters focus on protecting nearby homes.

(Photo: A firefighter uses a hose to douse the flames of the Rim Fire on August 24, 2013 near Groveland, California. The Rim Fire continues to burn out of control and threatens 4,500 homes outside of Yosemite National Park. Over 2,000 firefighters are battling the blaze. By Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)