By Ann McCreary

Longer and more intense wildfire seasons of recent years will only become more extreme as a result of climate change, and that has fueled efforts by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, to increase fuels reduction projects in forests to prevent large-scale forest fires.

Cantwell was joined by four climate and forestry scientists Thursday (Sept. 15) in a conference call focused on the risks to the nation’s forests and the need to allocate resources to protect them.

Cantwell said she is proposing a program of  “risk-based fuels reduction” that uses forest thinning and prescribed burning “as a way to stop fires from becoming so catastrophic.”

She said 67 million acres of forests in the West are at high risk of dying in future wildfires, and 2 million of those acres are in Washington State.

“We had two summers in a row of very devastating fire … throughout our state,” Cantwell said. “If we want to save our pine forests we will have to take more decisive actions.”
Cantwell, who is ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the U.S. Forest Service needs funding for preventive fuels reduction activities to make forest more resilient to future wildfires.

She cited collaborative efforts between the Forest Service and other groups to manage forests, including programs underway on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which includes the Methow Valley Ranger District.

The North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative is currently working with the Forest Service on prescribed burning and forest restoration projects in the Methow Ranger District. 

Fuels treatment projects “near Wenatchee have saved homes and landscapes,” Cantwell said. “The treatments become barriers to fire, protect against the fire continuing so aggressively.”

Much of the Forest Service budget is consumed by fighting fire, leaving little for preventive treatments, Cantwell said.

“Clearly we want to direct the Forest Service to do more risk-based treatments in advance. Spending so much of the budget during fire season as we try to do fire suppression is not going to be a solution for us,” Cantwell said.

“We need to deal with the situation now to save the forests. We can’t afford to play catch-up once forests have started to burn,” she said.

Firefighting costs

Scientists on the conference call concurred that climate change and the risks to forests will need to be addressed through science-based prevention programs that are adequately funded.

“Worsening wildfire seasons are outstripping the capacity of state and federal agencies to respond, and taking a terrible toll on communities in the path of these fires,” said Rachel Cleetus, an economist and climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Federal firefighting costs totaled over $2.1 billion in 2015, up from approximately $240 million in 1985. The Forest Service says that firefighting costs now consume over 50 percent of their annual budget, and could get up to two-thirds of their budget by 2025, up from 16 percent a decade ago,” Cleetus said.

“The overall long-term trend is clear. We know that climate change is contributing to longer, more intense wildfire seasons in the western United States,” Cleetus said.

The fire season in the West has expanded from five months on the average in the 1970s to more than seven months today, and the average number of large wildfires (greater than 1,000 acres) has more than doubled, she said.

“Our firefighting, forest management and development policies haven’t yet caught up to the new realities of worsening wildfire risks in a warming world,” Cleetus said.

Drought, insects

Drought and insect outbreaks have contributed to massive wildfires in British Columbia and California, said Robert Scheller, associate professor of environmental science and management at Portland State University in Oregon.

Similar devastation could be in store for Oregon and Washington, he said. “What we’re seeing, particularly in California forests, I believe is a prelude to our climate change future” in the Northwest, Scheller said.

His research has shown that some forests, like those in Oregon’s Coastal Range, have more natural and managed resilience due to significant precipitation and an extensive road network that provides access to replant trees.

Scheller’s research indicates the drier forests of Washington and Oregon can also be managed for climate change.

Randi Jandt, a fire ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, said Alaska experienced the two warmest years on record in 2014 and 2015, resulting in fires that consumed 5.1 million acres last summer.

“The northern boreal forests and tundra could be considered the front line for climate-driven fire regime change,” Jandt said. Those areas are warming more quickly relative to other areas of the planet, she said.

In drought-stricken California, where fires are still raging and the most active period of fire season is yet to come, 520,000 acres and 400 homes have burned this year, said David Sapsis, senior fire scientist with CAL FIRE. California has already spent more than $1 billion on fighting fire this year.

The wildfire danger for homes constructed in wildland-urban interface areas is a significant problem in California, with three million homes considered at risk, he said.

Seven of the state’s 10 largest and most damaging fires since 1900 have occurred in the past 16 years, Sapsis said.

“Since 2000, conifer forests are burning in the Sierra Nevada at four times the rate of the previous 20-year period,” he said.

Opening dialog

Cantwell’s proposal for increasing fuels reduction is included in draft text of a wildfire bill that has not yet been introduced, but is intended to open up dialog on the forest management issue.

In addition to preserving forests, Cantwell said she also wants to reduce carbon emissions created by wildfires that contribute to climate change.

Models show that doing risk-based fuel treatments on just 1 percent of Forest Service lands could prevent up to 33 million tons of carbon being released into the atmosphere, which is the equivalent of taking 55 million vehicles off the road, according to Cantwell.

Cantwell said she and other Congressional proponents of legislation to fund fuel treatments have been in discussion about how to fund the work. “There is a difference between the House and Senate about … where we would come up with funding,” she said.

But with the increasing risk of wildfires threatening 67 million acres of national forests and the communities around them, “the economic impact is going to be too costly not to act,” she said.