This year will not soon be forgotten for its devastating escalation of the global wildfire crisis. Unfortunately, 2021 hasn’t been much different from 2020, and in both years we witnessed the compounding impacts of Covid-19 – wildfire smoke contributing to existing respiratory threats from the pandemic, firefighter limitations such as social distancing, etc. As I share these thoughts from my home in north central California, wildfire smoke once again fills the air. And IFF readers in so many regions of the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia are living the same experience.
While the fires are raging, so too is the annual, heated debate among politicians, policymakers and victims of wildfires as to what can possibly be done to mitigate the risks and lessen the damages. Even a glance at global media coverage reveals the ongoing debate between two schools of thought, fire prevention advocates versus those focused on fire suppression, with both calling for increased resources and budgets. Without question, the fire prevention camp dominates the news, arguing essentially that ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’.
More specifically, the narrative being promoted year after year is that by reversing the environmental effects of climate change the wildfire risk will be greatly reduced. And at the same time, by reducing the amount of wildfire fuel on the ground through improved land management practices, the risks will be further reduced.
Agreed, these two causal factors are at the heart of the wildfire crisis throughout the world. However, I vehemently disagree with this strategy as the foundation of a wildfire risk mitigation plan of action if one of the goals is to reduce the risk in our lifetime, or our children’s lifetime. Further, I would argue that increased spending on firefighting resources should not be positioned as less effective, shortsighted spending on a ‘cure’. Advance fire suppression planning and investment is a prevention strategy – preventing the tens of thousands of small fires that ignite every year from becoming huge wildfires and massive economic crises. We will never stop wildfires from igniting as a result of either natural or man-made causes. Here in the US, about 70,000 wildfires ignite annually. The goal must be preventing small fires from exploding into massive, ‘mega’ or ‘giga’ (100k+ acre) disasters.
Among the countless scientific studies looking at realistic timeframes for reversing climate change impacts, a credible report published in 2020 was covered by the news media with headlines including ‘Even if we start to fix climate change, the proof may not show up for 30 years.’ In other words, if, hypothetically, the governments of every developed nation in the world implemented sweeping climate policy changes that were far more aggressive than the Paris Climate Accords, the benefits as relates to the environment and wildfire risk reduction will not even begin to be realized for decades.
As the primary strategy being promoted by leaders throughout the world for reducing the wildfire risk, asserting that ‘we can fix the wildfire crisis by fixing the climate crisis’ is nothing more than kicking the can down the road, and assuring that the new normal of mega and giga fire threats will continue.
Similarly, the notion that tangible progress can be made in forest management, such that dramatic reduction in wildfire fuels can be achieved in short order, is flawed on a number of levels. First, considering several US facts, approximately half of large wildfires ignite on land owned by the federal government. The feds own 640,000,000 acres of land and the vast majority of these acres are in the fire-prone western states, in rugged, hard-to-reach terrain. Even a tenfold increase in preventative land management budgets for people and equipment will deliver only marginal benefits over decades given the enormity of the at-risk landscape.
Wildfire fuel reduction and land management policy reform must be considered, debated, budgeted, and enacted with a commitment to transparency – this is far from a quick remedy to the wildfire crisis. Arguing otherwise is misleading the public and kicking the can down the road.
In order to offer real, near-term solutions it is critical that policymakers understand these underlying realities. More fires are igniting every year. Fires ignite in remote, difficult-to-access terrains that often interface with human populations. Dryer, hotter conditions and too much fuel on the ground is promoting rapid fire growth. Even if dramatic reforms to current climate and land management policies were enacted tomorrow, it will be many decades before the benefits are realized. In the meantime, preventing small fires from exploding into huge disasters must be job number one. And calls for increased investment in fire suppression resources must be weighed against the cost of large wildfires, and the potential to save billions by spending millions.
In the US, wildfires have a minimum $250,000,000,000 negative impact on the country’s gross domestic product every year. Failure to increase firefighting resources on the ground and in the air is an act of penny-wise, pound-foolish neglect. And among those paying the price are the urban firefighters throughout the world pulling double duty as wildland firefighters. As a career firefighter, this is the message I deliver to the US Congress, state and local officials, and to the media. I believe it’s our duty to never stop pounding this drum.