The fact is, we've seen approximately a 93% decrease in the extent of fires annually in North America since pre-industrial times. Do we want to return to this level of fire? Of course not. We'd be overwhelmed with smoke and further, much of the lands that burned in those times were still undeveloped. But forests and grasslands will burn and they are likely to burn more with extensive droughts and climate change.
With so much media and political attention focused on wildfires – and in some cases public lands management with calls to greatly increase logging on national forests by reducing public input and environmental analysis – it is helpful to review this year's wildfire statistics to see what's burned and where.
According to the National Interagency Coordinator Center's 'Incident Management Situation Report from Tuesday, September 1, 2015’:
- As of today, a total of 8,202,557 acres have burned in U.S. wildfires. In 1930 and 1931, over 50 million acres burned each year and during the 10 year (hot and dry) period from the late 1920’s to the late 1930’s an AVERAGE of 30 million acres burned every year in the U.S.
- This year, 63% of ALL wildfire acres burned in the U.S. burned in Alaska, much of it over remote tundra ecosystems. According to federal records, since 1959 the average temperature in Alaska has jumped 3.3 degrees and the average winter temperature has spiked 5 degrees.
- National Forests account for ONLY 15% of all wildfire acres burned in U.S. this year.
- 88% of all BLM (Bureau of Land Management) acres burned in wildfires this year were in Alaska, again much of tundra, not forests.
- And firefighting costs to the taxpayer continue to skyrocket. According to the U.S. Forest Service, in 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the agency’s annual appropriated budget—this year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget will be dedicated to wildfire. The agency predicts the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67 percent.
According to scientists at the U.S. Forest Service, Wildland Urban Interface "home losses can be reduced by focusing efforts on homes and their immediate surroundings. At higher densities where neighboring homes may occupy the immediate surroundings, loss reductions may necessarily involve a community. If homes have a sufficiently low home ignitability, a community exposed to a severe wildfire can survive without major fire destruction. The key to reducing W-UI home fire losses is to reduce home ignitability. …. modeling, crown fire experiments, and case studies indicate that a home’s structural characteristics and its immediate surroundings determine a home’s ignition potential in a W-UI fire. …. we can conclude that home ignitions are not likely unless flames and firebrand ignitions occur within 40 meters of the structure. This finding indicates that the spatial scale determining home ignitions corresponds more to specific home and community sites than to the landscape scales of wildland fire management."
In other words, we should spend limited funds in the immediate surroundings of homes and structures, not logging forests far in the backcountry. We should also be modernizing county building ordinances as more and more communities expand into highly flammable western landscapes or "fire zones" and redirecting the financial burden back on homeowners as California has done. Homeowners in the fire zone cannot continue to expect taxpayers to foot bill.
Again, this information is especially important in the context of recent statements (and pending federal legislation) from lawmakers blaming wildfires on a lack of national forest logging or a handful of lawsuits. The fact is fuel buildup in our forests is from a century of unsustainable logging with the companies leaving the taxpayer the clean up expenses. Combined with cyclical drought and climate change, we're getting some very hot fires, though not any more fire than occurred historically.
If lawmakers are going to use another wildfire season to weaken our nation's key environmental or public lands laws by increasing logging (including calls by Rep Ryan Zinke (R-MT) for logging within Wilderness Areas) then the public should have facts and statistics available to help put the wildfires in context.
Logging does not mimic the results of natural fire and actually results in higher fire hazard due to drier conditions and logging roads that result in more human ignitions. We can't log our way out of the western wildfires, in fact we need to learn to live with them.