Fire Suppression in the West

Forest fires have always been a familiar part of my life. As a kid growing up in Northwestern Montana, I had a comic book about Smokey the Bear detailing his entire (tragic) life story and ending with the familiar maxim, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Later, sports seasons were interrupted by air quality concerns, and the end of August always marked a time of blazing red sunsets due to smoke. I got a bit closer to fire than I would have liked two weekends ago, when a canoeing trip to Lost Lake was abruptly cut short by an evacuation due to concerns about the Eagle Creek Fire.

In the past weeks, the persistent haze from the fire raging through the Columbia River Gorge struck up a dialogue in Portland that resembles many occurring all over the West. For example, the first thing everyone noticed about the Eagle Creek Fire was the smoke, to the point that when air quality in Portland improved, people assumed the fires were over, even though they were not yet put out. On one hand, smoke is such a potent reminder of fire because it poses an immediate health concern. However, it also affects people on a psychological level, perhaps in an even more permeating way. The red sun and moon, the ash raining from the sky, the inability to run and play outside—these lead to a very oppressive, apocalyptic atmosphere (pun intended). The same focus on air quality can be seen in areas across the West, from California to Washington to Montana.

However, when it comes to fire management, air quality isn’t really the main safety concern to consider. Most of the focus ends up being on homes and structures in the Wildland Urban Interface—the area at the edge of suburbs and cities in which homes are surrounded by significant quantities of vegetation. This prioritization of man-made infrastructure can be seen in the reporting surrounding fires. NBC Montana, in their “fire roundup,” provided information about the progression of significant Montana fires. Their parameters focused on location, size, and containment levels, but the truly motivating statistics came with the numbers of structures threatened and roads closed. This was seen in Portland too, as, the close of I-84 and the threat to the lodge near Multnomah Falls led to public outcry. There were also many articles about trail closures in the Columbia River Gorge, and the possible threat to the Bull Run Watershed.

There is a pattern uniting these fire-related fears. The media tends to frame the forest fire narrative through its ability to destroy man-made things. Fire is clearly the enemy in this story, one which must be stopped at any cost. Senators from Montana and Oregon echo the alarm: Senator Merkeley of Oregon said on Twitter “Heroes. Huge thanks to brave firefighters who worked on front lines all night to protect historic Multnomah Falls Lodge from #EagleCreekFire,” and Senator Tester said, “We’ve tragically lost two brave firefighters and seen homes, farms, ranches, and businesses crumble before our eyes.” Senators are incentivized to cast fire as the enemy because of one simple fact: fighting fire is expensive. According to an article in the Missoulian, “Montana has spent more than $50 million on fire suppression since early July.” To assist with this hefty bill, fire suppression amendments need to be added to disaster aid packages, and pushing emergency funding through Congress in times of need can be difficult with our stagnant Congress. Nonetheless, just last Thursday, a new disaster aid funding package made it through the Senate. Essentially, in order to receive disaster aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a case must be made that fire should be treated as a disastrous occurrence.

There are drawbacks to viewing fires as disasters. Fire is a necessary part of an ecosystem. Smaller burns can increase species diversity and add increased nutrients to the soil. Without semi-regular fires, underbrush and dead plant matter build to a point where future fires have the potential to completely devastate an area. But throughout the West, a doctrine of fire suppression carries on in our news rhetoric and our policy. Especially in cases of “natural disaster,” the media tends to stray toward hysteria, sometimes in cases when this hysteria isn’t warranted. However, it remains difficult to talk about fires in a way that doesn’t highlight their disastrous tendencies, especially because fires pose immediate threats to homes and human health. It becomes a problem with the nature of journalism: immediate dangers make the news, and thus the immediate dangers associated with wildfires receive the most credit.

That being said, it is important to note that data trends show fires experiencing a significant increase in magnitude and frequency. According to a report published in 2015 by the U.S. Forest Service, “In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget—this year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget will be dedicated to wildfire.” The report adds that “Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970. The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.” The increase in burns can be partially attributed to hotter and drier summers which extend the season in which forests are vulnerable to flame, as well as a history of strict fire suppression from the Forest Service, which leads to a build-up of underbrush and prime fire conditions. These factors are complicated and politically controversial, but this does not reduce the dire need to mitigate them. Not only will the uptake in fire frequency be costly from a budgetary sense, but it will also pose a risk to many homes, watersheds, and valuable areas. In addition, when forests aren’t given adequate time to recover, or the temperatures they burn at grow too hot, the beneficial aspects of fire are outweighed by the losses. Forest fires are not a problem in themselves, but they have become a problem because they occur at an unsustainable rate due to human influence.

The question of human impact on the environment becomes very poignant here. Portlanders were eager to blame the teenagers setting off fireworks in the Gorge for the Eagle Creek Fire. But in this case, the Smokey the Bear mentality can only take you so far. Fires are often ignited by humans, and certainly everyone should do their part to be safe when they recreate in forested areas, but fires are also a natural and somewhat inevitable process. Considering the biological timescale, there are certain areas that are simply bound to burn at some point, either this summer because of a firework, or next summer, or in ten or twenty years because of a lightning strike. That isn’t to say that humans don’t have any impact on forest fires: we’ve been managing large enough swaths of forest land and contributing to changes in climate enough to have drastically altered the way these ecosystems function. Ultimately, blaming the teenagers for Eagle Creek is a little bit like blaming the kid who knocks over a teetering stack of dirty dishes in the sink. Yes, he made it fall, but who put those dishes there, and what the devil were they thinking?

In mitigating the number of forest fires in future summers and their intensity, we may be well served to think less about who is starting the fire than the circumstances by which fires occur. Perhaps instead of following a strict model of fire suppression, it would be better (and safer) to follow a doctrine of fire moderation, freeing up part of the Forest Service budget to work at removing underbrush and therefore mitigating the intensity of future fires. But until we can completely revamp the way we manage forest ecosystems and reverse the drying effects of climate change—please, no fireworks after the Fourth of July.

Main Source: “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work,” a 2015 fire budget report from the USDA. Full sources available on request.