Will wildfires continue to get worse year after year? Funding and good forest management can help protect people and parks.
Record heat and drought have made 2015 one of the worst years for wildfires in recent memory. Firefighters have already contained more than 47,000 individual wildfires over nearly 9 million acres so far this year, with 19 large fires still raging across six western U.S. states. In California alone, about 700,000 acres have burned—that’s roughly equivalent to the size of Yosemite National Park and about 200,000 acres more than usual.
The toll has been staggering: firefighters and area residents killed, thousands of buildings destroyed, thousands of people evacuated, millions more properties threatened, and thick, acrid smoke plaguing the air in numerous communities. The effect on national parks has also been severe, with thousands of acres in or near Glacier, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, North Cascades, and Crater Lake National Parks consumed by flames.
There is no question: The first priority of any disaster-relief efforts should always be maintaining the safety of the people and communities surrounding the devastation.
In the long term, however, fire itself is not the enemy.
When it’s not extreme and unpredictable, fire plays an important role in keeping forests healthy and sustaining habitat for wildlife. When properly maintained, national parks and other protected landscapes can actually improve the safety of nearby communities by reducing fire risk. In most places, the current season of unnaturally large and dangerous fires is a result of unusual heat and drought. In others, some of the speed and scale of the fires can be attributed to decades of misguided fire suppression efforts combined, in some cases, with the effects of climate change, which is making temperatures hotter, conditions drier, and precipitation less regular. The irony is that more fires—regular natural fires or purposeful controlled burns—could better protect people and parks from catastrophic blazes.
Funding the Firefighters Who Need It Most
In the short term, we need to find the resources on a national level to put out these raging fires and support the men and women who put their lives on the line to fight them. For years, NPCA has been one of many voices calling on Congress to fund wildfire relief efforts similar to the way it funds other recovery efforts from disasters like hurricanes and floods. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA) currently in Congress is a balanced and bipartisan approach to disaster management that would send a critical infusion of support to the places where it is most desperately needed. As recently as last week, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was continuing to urge Congress to support WDFA.
A new funding stream for our most extreme fires—literally the costliest .1% of all wildfires—is desperately needed. What we allocate to protect our public lands has fallen short for more than a decade. The National Park Service and other federal agencies have existing budgets to address fire safety, but these funds do not cover the extraordinary cost of fighting catastrophic fires—eight of the last 13 years, land management agencies have simply run out of money. In fiscal years 2013 and 2014 alone, agencies borrowed more than $1 billion from other critical programs to cover the costs of fire suppression. This kind of Paul-robbing and Peter-paying can put urgent firefighting needs in conflict with longer-term projects and staffing—including the kind of responsible controlled burns that could lessen the intensity and scope of future fires.
Using Fire to Manage Fires
Funding and fire suppression are just part of the solution. Planning responsibly for the future means understanding the larger picture when firefighters aren’t actively containing blazes. This macro view should include an understanding of the health of the forest ecosystem, the safety of local communities, and the economics of fire—namely that it costs four to five times more per acre to extinguish a fire than to let it burn. Without informed public discourse and a responsible approach to managing fires, these kinds of disasters may only worsen in the face of globally rising temperatures, earlier snow melt, and drier forest conditions.
Fortunately, the Park Service has a long history of adapting its fire-management strategy to incorporate best stewardship practices. Suppression is still a default response to fire in some areas—especially when fire poses a threat to structures or visitation. But the Park Service is a leader when it comes to considering the full range of fire management options, including using prescribed burns, setting back burns, and letting the natural fire regime of the landscape take its course when appropriate. Their consistent motto demonstrates a progressive vision when compared to the past century of fire suppression: “The National Park Service manages wildland fire to protect the public, communities, and infrastructure, conserve natural and cultural resources, and restore and maintain ecological health.”
This approach avoids the aggressive logging of fire-prone landscapes that is apparent in some “cut it before it burns” political agendas. Instead, it expresses a general understanding that some landscapes need to be shaped by fire, that not all fires are catastrophic mega-fires, and moreover, that fire has helped reveal the true character of landscapes we now consider our most iconic national parks.
Our thoughts remain with the families of the firefighters and victims, and with the communities that will struggle to rebuild among ashes. Just as it was decades ago, dealing with fire is a complicated, politicized, and challenging endeavor. However, we look to the progress of agencies like the Park Service to lead us into a new era of fire, reminding us that fire is both part of the natural world and a valuable tool for managing our nation’s most treasured landscapes.
About the author
Ani Kame’enui Former Deputy Vice President, Government Affairs
Ani Kame’enui is the Deputy Vice President for the Government Affairs team and responsible for managing NPCA's policy portfolio across a range of park issues. She comes to NPCA with a background in geology, water resources engineering, and a love for natural resource science and policy.