By Gina McCoy
As fires rage, aren’t we getting good and tired of evacuations, choking smoke, lost homes and devastated forests? Not to mention the ever-present risk to lives. Surely, the large majority of Methow Valley residents — particularly, those who have been here long enough to have experienced the changes — understand that extreme wildfire is a growing threat to our ecosystems, community, economy and health.
By now, it is commonly understood that long-term suppression of natural fire is the primary cause of the widespread overstocking of forests, with attendant problems: stressed, low-vigor trees vulnerable to disease, insect outbreaks, drought and unnaturally extreme wildfire. This is not news to land managers.
As a recent column by Stephen Pyne noted: “U.S. land agencies reformed policies to reinstate good fire 40 to 50 years ago …” He also notes that it has “not been achievable at scale,” although I wonder whether he should have added “given resources provided to reinstate good fire.”
What has changed since those ineffectual policy reforms is the incidence and size of uncontrollable mega-fires. These pose a much different kind of threat. Just a few years ago, it seemed unthinkable that wildfires would overrun towns. Now, it is a yearly occurrence in the western United States. In the state of Washington, the Methow Valley has the distinction of having three of the 10 communities most at risk from wildfire. We are at ground zero. It is time to demand swift action to reduce these risks.
Feds must change
Public lands managed by the federal government encompass 84% of the Methow watershed. Much of the threat we are under is due to the long-term dereliction of duty on the part of the feds to responsibly manage these lands. Only rapid, large-scale action by the federal government can meaningfully reduce our risks. To be clear, I am not blaming local U.S. Forest Service staff; I believe they are doing their best, under very difficult circumstances. This is far more the result of decision-making, or the lack of it, in Washington, D.C.
Year by year, the cost of suppressing fires grows. Average annual spending by the Forest Service on fire suppression between 1985 and 1989 was $258 million. Thirty years later, between 2016 and 2020, it had grown more than seven times greater, to $1.91 billion. Don’t get me wrong: I am deeply grateful for the protection we receive from federal, state and local fire-fighting efforts. The problem is that Congress has neither created separate funding for fire suppression, nor increased the Forest Service budget to fund the growing costs.
Thus, the war on wildfire has starved the budgets of other programs, including those aimed at reducing the hideously expensive problem. Remember, nothing productive comes out of fire suppression — the whole value is in preventing harm. Really, it brings to mind the old quote “Billions for firefighting, but not one cent for forest health restoration.”
The federal approach is allowing the problem to worsen, particularly as climate change accelerates. Let’s face it: As megafires continue to grow bigger, more-destructive and more-numerous, we cannot expect there will always be the same level of firefighting response. There will be other, bigger communities needing that protection. The bulldozers, helicopters and bombers will be gone. Ask yourself where the Cub Creek and Cedar Creek fires might now have spread without those resources.
Much to do
There is not a lot of time to turn this around, but there is much we can do. Since at least the 1970s, and the founding of the Methow Valley Citizens Council to oppose the development of a ski resort, the Methow community has a rich history of successful environmental advocacy.
Just a few years ago, the Methow community rallied again and mounted the Methow Headwaters Campaign. A coalition of local residents, business owners and organizations successfully banded together to make federal lands in the upper watershed off limits to mining.
We need this same kind of effort, this time to protect our forests and community from the threat of extreme wildfires. The federal government’s management of our lands is a primary cause of the threat we are under. We must work together to hold the federal government to account.
Only by protecting our forests can we protect our community and climate. We need to demand swift and effective action to restore the health and resilience of our forests. What to do is not a mystery. What has been lacking are the resources and will to make this happen. Together, we can change that.
Gina McCoy is a watershed hydrologist and fluvial engineer living in Winthrop. She is a co-founder of C6 Forest to Farm, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting our forests from extreme wildfire. She can be reached at info@C6F2F.org