Welcome to the West’s new world of fire. With six out of the last eight years among the worst 10 fire seasons since 1960, it is a world where every year is what we call a “bad” fire season. Or maybe it’s the “indefinitely bad” season, as Tom Boatner, the BLM’s chief of fire operations and a 30-year firefighting veteran, puts it.
We live in a different world in the American West at the beginning of the 21st century than the cooler, wetter times of years past. Today’s world is one I first discovered 19 years ago this summer in Yellowstone National Park.
The 1988 fire season seemed an aberration then. Now, it’s the norm. That means every summer, residents of cities like Boise, Idaho, and Missoula, Mont., must suffer through unhealthy levels of smoke. Vacationers now must watch for the closure of entire national forests, and river outfitters face uncertainty over the length of their seasons. This year’s hunters still don’t know whether they can go to their favorite camps. The fires mean that the summer tourist season may face permanent changes in visitor patterns, says former Montana congressman Pat Williams.
We re-engineered the original forests into the ones we have today, using the science that foresters gave us. In the process, we filled them up with fuel that made them harder to protect, not easier. We even engineered the wholesale burning of fossil fuels that -- if the International Panel on Climate Change is right -- has contributed to the warming, drying and longer fire seasons we are experiencing today.
A team of scientists headed by forest engineer Anthony Westerling, based at the University of California-Merced, released a landmark study last year that said we are experiencing longer fire seasons, larger fires and more big fires because of climate change. The effects of climate change even overwhelm the decades of fire suppression and the build-up of fuel that created. If it continues, the forests, which today capture 20 to 40 percent of all of the carbon scientists say contributes to the climate’s change, will burn up. That would turn our forests from net carbon sinks to net carbon sources.
So, once again, we must turn to the foresters for salvation. The practice of silviculture offers, just as it did at the beginning of the conservation era a century ago, the best option for conserving our forests and the natural values on which they’re based.
The only thing we can do, they say, is to reduce the overall fires through massive thinning and yes, logging. This won’t sit well with people who have spent their lives stopping logging on our national forests. Even so, scientists are still not certain that thinning and logging can curb the transformation of these forests. And building consensus to do anything in this new world likely will be as hard as it was in the old world.
No matter what happens, what trees will grow where will be dictated by the changing climate, not by history. We will have to adapt.
For 12 years, the national land management agencies, the firefighting bureaucracy, Western political leaders, environmentalists, industry groups and local communities have struggled to transform policy to meet the new reality on the landscape. Experts said then as they say now that we are battling the clock. Each year, more acres burn. More communities suffer. Billions of dollars are spent.
This year, we are beginning to see the effects of the past 20 years of fires on the larger landscape. Firefighters work hard to herd fires into the wildfire-thinned boundaries of past fires. The path for some new fires is no longer an open road. Add the millions of acres that have been intentionally burned and mechanically thinned over the last decade, which now present obstacles to fire growth, and the opportunity to manage these new fires appears as a sign of hope, an orange sunrise on the horizon.
But as convection clouds rise in the afternoon heat of this waning summer, what seems inevitable is that more wildfires will devour trees and threaten homes. We are far from being out of the woods.
Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Boise where he’s an environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman. He’s also the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.