U.S. wildfire season on pace to break last year’s record

Colorado forest fire
Climate change has increased the risk of dangerous forest fires across the West. @bberwyn photo.

Global warming a key factor in surge of giant forest blazes

By Bob Berwyn

With about 1.5 million acres already scarred by wildfires across the U.S. this year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is warning of a long, hot fire season ahead. Following a meeting with regional Forest Service leaders, Vilsack, along with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, said that federal budgets are not keeping pace with the steep increase in fires.

Vilsack said 2015 was the most expensive fire season in the department’s history, costing more than $2.6 billion on fire alone.

“The 2016 wildfire season is off to a worrisome start. Southern California, the Great Basin in Nevada, portions of the southwest, and even Florida and Hawaii are particularly vulnerable this year,” Vilsack said. The sustained California drought killed more than 40 million trees, which are all potential fuel, and projections for hot summer weather, driven by global warming and a massive El Niño hangover, will likely increase the danger even more, he added.

“Congress must take action now to ensure that we, and, ultimately the firefighters we ask so much of, have the resources to do the restoration and wildfire prevention work necessary to keep our forests healthy,” Vilsack said, repeating a message he gave to Congress last December: This year, Vilsack will not transfer funds from forest restoration and resilience funds to firefighting. Instead, Vilsack said the Forest Service will use the money as intended — for mitigating wildfire risk, reducing hazardous fuels and accomplishing treatments that increase forest health and resilience.

This year’s fires to-date have already burned five times more acreage than last year, 50 percent more than the 10-year running average and the most since 2011 (2.57 million acres). Though it’s not the only factor, a rapidly dwindling spring snowpack in the West could worsen the fire danger if the weather turns hot and dry into early summer.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service earlier this month reported that parts of the Western snowpack melted at a record speed during April.

“In the Pacific Northwest, low precipitation and high temperatures led to a dramatic reduction in snowpack,” said NRCS Hydrologist Cara McCarthy. “In this area, peak streamflow is arriving weeks earlier than normal this year.”

Tidwell said the agency will focus foremost on the safety of firefighters Last year, seven members of the Forest Service firefighting team were lost in the line of duty, and 4,500 homes were damaged or destroyed.

“The job of fighting wildfires has become increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts and development within Wildland-Urban Interface areas,” said Tidwell. “We must do what is necessary to ensure we have the resources to perform restoration and wildfire prevention work essential to keep our forests healthy.”

Climate change has led to fire seasons that are, on average, 78 days longer than they were in 1970 and, on average, the number of acres burned each year has doubled since 1980. As a result, the Forest Service’s firefighting budget is regularly exhausted before the end of the wildfire season, forcing the Forest Service to abandon critical restoration and capital improvement projects in order to suppress extreme fires.

Even a so-called normal year is far worse than it used to be. On average, wildfires burn twice as much land area each year as they did 40 years ago and the threat continues to increase.

The Forest Service spent more than half its budget on firefighting in 2015, a rate that is unsustainable, given the agency’s multiple missions. During a one-week period in August, firefighting cost $243 million. Once again last year, the agency was forces transfer funds away from forest restoration projects that would help reduce the risk of future fires, in order to cover the high cost of battling blazes.

“We keep setting records we don’t want to see beat. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, over the last 10 years we’ve seen 16 of the most historically significant wildfires on record,” said Vilsack. “Only focused prevention and forest restoration work can help us turn the corner, so I have directed the Forest Service to aggressively use the funding provided in the 2016 Fiscal Year budget to support forest management, restoration, research, and partnership work to help get ahead of the severe wildfire problem and to focus on providing other services that the American public expects from the Forest Service.”

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