Larger, hotter wildfires the new norm in West

Posted: December 9, 2012

Source: Missoulian

The trend toward larger, hotter wildfires in this part of the country is rapidly becoming the newnormal.

In the four decades between 1960 and 1999, wildfires in the United States scorched more than 7 million acres in a single year just once. Since 2000? Eight times, with 2012 at 8.8 million acres and still climbing. The annual number of wildfires exceeding 25,000 acres in 11 Western states has quintupled since the 1970s, according to a Climate Central report released last month.

The causes, fire ecologists say, are simple enough. A century of fire suppression and traditional “pick-and-pluck” logging practices that removed the largest, most fire-resistant trees have transformed open stands of ponderosa pine into multi-tiered, lower-crowned forests of thinner-barked trees more susceptible to spruce budworm and bark beetle — and catastrophic wildfire.

“The problem is so large,” says James Agee, who has been the go-to guy on fire ecology for both the Forest Service and the National Park Service, “we can’t attack it all in just a few years.”

The fire season across the West, according to the Climate Central analysis, is 2½ months longer than it was 40 years ago. This year’s Yakima and Wenatchee Complex fires didn’t even begin until the second week of September, and in extending the statewide burn ban last week, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said Washington had “not seen wildfire conditions this bad in October in a lifetime.”

But it almost certainly will again. Soon. And for years to come.

Climatologists estimate western U.S. summer temperatures have risen more than 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last century and could, by the mid-21st century, climb another 3.6 degrees — or even more.

And if they go up even half that much, says the National Research Council, the burn area in those Western states is apt to quadruple.

Scary spots on map

Eighteen years ago, U.S. Forest Service officials proposed setting aside large blocks of forest as spotted owl habitat, in which there would be little management.

When they bounced the idea off Agee, then the service’s forest fire consultant, he told them in no uncertain terms: No. Bad idea.

Minus active land management — thinning operations and prescribed burns — those de facto reserves, Agee warned, would simply fuel increasingly larger wildfires.

Those officials asked Agee where he thought Washington’s forests were at the greatest risk of that kind of fire. He pointed on the map to a spot in Central Washington he knew was prone to lightning activity. Three weeks later, a series of lightning strikes at that very location ignited the 1994 firestorm that burned 200,000 acres and blackened ridgetops all the way from Leavenworth to Chelan.

If Agee had been asked that same question last year, he would have pointed to the very areas burned in last month’s Table Mountain and Wenatchee Complex fires, forests absolutely riddled with western spruce budworm that can defoliate and kill entire stands. This year, he might well pinpoint the Cascade foothills west of Yakima, where huge stands of bone-dry forest have been turned brown by the same kind of parasitic infestation. Even a tenacious Forest Service regimen of prescribed burning and stand-thinning treatments can’t keep up.

“If you could treat about a third of the forest area, that would have a major impact on the rate of spread of these large wildfires, and they would also have less debilitating effects on the vegetation,” Agee said. “But the rate we’re treating is maybe 1 to 2 percent per year at most, out of the context of being effective at all.”

Where there’s smoke

Prescribed burns can also be unpopular with the general public because they, too, create smoke. Witness the reaction to the Wenatchee National Forest’s September 2009 prescribed burn on the west end of Bethel Ridge.

At 6,100 acres, the “Kaboom” project was roughly five times the size of a typical large burn treatment, and things got messy when an inversion and a breezeless day left a smoky haze from Rimrock to Toppenish. Local agencies were deluged with complaints, and three weeks later the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency issued a $12,000 fine to the Naches Ranger District. The fine was later rescinded.

Three years later, though, Kaboom paid off. On Sept. 8 
of this year, lightning struck an area east of the 2009 prescribed burn site, igniting what became the 2,015-acre Wild Rose Fire for which the now-fuels-poor Kaboom site served as an enormous fire break.

“That whole (west) side of the fire was never a worry to us,” said Jim Bailey, the Naches Ranger District’s fire-fuels specialist, “because Kaboom was there.”

Suppression costs for the Wild Rose Fire were less than $9 million, a figure Forest Service officials believe would have been far higher — perhaps rivaling the costs of the Table Mountain or Wenatchee Complex fires (about $50 million combined) — had Kaboom’s security-blanket presence to the west not enabled wildland fire crews to concentrate their efforts on the fire’s eastern boundary.

In the end, suppression costs on Wild Rose were $4,400 for each acre burned.

Cost of the Kaboom prescribed burn: $35 per acre.

Fire and its price tag

The price tag matters in this era of flagging federal and state budgets.

Suppression costs of this year’s wildfires exceeded $1 billion, roughly twice what was budgeted. The Washington Post reported this week that since 2002, the Forest Service has had to divert $2.2 billion from elsewhere in its budget to meet the costs of fire suppression.

That the fuel treatments — the ounce of prevention costing a fraction of the pound of cure — are effective was borne out in this year’s wildfires around Wenatchee and Yakima. In addition to Wild Rose bumping right up against Kaboom, the Table Mountain Fire was slowed on the south side when it came through an area previously thinned and, along with the Peavine Fire, on the north side by several areas treated by thinning and burning.

One of the most dynamic circumstances came where the Table Mountain and Peavine fires encroached very close to a housing development on the road up to the Mission Ridge Ski Area overlooking Wenatchee. Land managers had done multiple fuels treatments — thinning in 1992 and burns in 1996 and 2009 — that, without which, “The threat to that housing development would have been much, much greater,” said Richy Harrod, deputy fire staff officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

And the threat of wildfire to the increasing sprawl of “wildland-urban interface” areas will continue as long as people continue to act like, well, people.

Target shooters and other gun users in tinder-dry wildlands ignited some three dozen wildfires this year in Utah and Idaho alone. Campfires, many of them illegal during burn bans, cause an average of 500 wildfires each year. The 2003 Cedar Fire that killed 15 people and blackened more than 280,000 acres in California began when a novice hunter became lost and decided to signal rescuers to his location by starting a fire.

It’s not if, but when

Wildlife response to wildfire can depend on the intensity of the fire. A widespread, particularly hot fire can completely change what animal life exists within a forest ecosystem. Kill all the trees in a forest, for example, and you wipe out the truffles — the underground mushrooms — that depend on the trees’ root systems.

Then you lose the flying squirrels that eat the truffles, and that in turn impacts the spotted owls that depend on those squirrels as their primary prey.

Preventing catastrophic wildfire while still allowing for fire’s natural place in the ecosystem, says Wenatchee-based Forest Service biologist John Lehmkuhl, “is trying to do that balancing act: How do you restore the landscape and still give society what it wants, like these threatened and endangered species.”

For the past year, Lehmkuhl has been studying the effects of thinning treatments on small mammals, flying squirrels and spotted owls in the Table Mountain area.

The effects of prescribed burns was next on the schedule — but that won’t happen now. All of his study sites burned up in last month’s fire.

Those sites were going to burn one way or another, like so many other areas in the Cascade forests. Humans can burn them a little bit at a time, creating some bothersome smoke, or nature will take its own course.

“It’s sort of that scenario of, you can pay me now or you can pay me later: You can take some smoke in small doses periodically, or you can take one really big dose of smoke when you eventually have that gigantic wildfire,” said Dave Peterson, a Forest Service biologist who serves as a team leader at the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab in Seattle.

“With all these dry landscapes, it’s not a question of if it’s going to burn. It’s when. And the amount of fuels on the ground will dictate how much of your forests will burn.”