‘Nothing looks good’ in preparation for summer wildfire season

Salem, Ore. – Wearing soot-stained, fire-resistant clothing and helmets, many wild firefighters came up with a spade through a stand of ponderosa pines as flames spread through the underbrush.

Fire personnel were not there to extinguish the fire. He started it.

The scheduled burn, ignited this month near the scenic mountain town of Bend, is part of a larger effort in wooded areas in the US West to prepare for the fire season, which is expected to be worse than last year’s record-scattering.

Officials from the agencies told the Associated Press that the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have diluted nearly 1.8 million acres (728,000 hectares) of forest and brushland with hands, machines and prescribed water since last season. They typically treat about 3 million (1.2 million hectares) acres each year.

However, all that activity has barely scratched the surface. The federal government owns about 640 million acres (260 million hectares) in the US, but 4% of it is located to the west, including Alaska, some of which are unsuitable for prescribed burning.

“All these steps are in the right direction, but the challenge is large and complex,” said John Bailey, professor of silviculture and fire management at Oregon State University. “And more needs to be done to bend the corner.”

Efforts have to face the convergence of foggy forces.

Severe drought has turned forests and grasslands into dry fuel, ready to be ignited by a careless camper or lightning strike. More people are building in areas bordering the wildlands, expanding the so-called wildland-urban interface, an area where wildfires affect people the most. Invasive, highly flammable vegetation is spreading uncontrollably throughout the West.

“I’m seeing probably the worst situation in my lifetime,” said Derrick DeGroot, a county commissioner in Klamath County, southern Oregon. “We have a heavy fuel load in the forests, and we are witnessing drought, as we have seen in the last 115 years.”

Asked how worried he was about the 2021 fire season, DeGroot said: “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m 12 years old. Nothing feels good.”

Among other prevention measures, utility companies are removing vegetation around power lines and are ready to plant blackouts when those lines are at risk of fire.

An army of firemen is being increased. And communities are encouraging residents to make their properties fire resistant.

Still, much work remains to be done to change the West’s trajectory from fire, particularly in two fundamental areas, said Scott Stephens, a professor of wildland fire science at the University of California, Berkeley.

“People are being better prepared for the imperative of fires in areas such as the Wildland Urban Interface. This includes new construction,” he said. “And another is our ecosystems are better equipped for climate change and the effects of fire. Preparing from. “

At the local level, individuals and communities need to create a defensive location and evacuation plan, Stephens said. At the government level, the management of forests through prescribed burns and thinning requires much greater resources.

“I think we have one to two decades,” he said. “If we don’t do it honestly, we’re obviously going to see forest changes before our eyes from fire, climate change., Droughts, insects, things of that nature.”

In addition to the high forests, the West is facing a new threat: cheatgrass.

Jessica Gardetto, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said trying to get rid of the invasive grass is like the endless toil of Greek mythological Sisyphus, who was only forced to roll a boulder up a hill. As it approaches the apex, it rolls repeatedly.

Cheatgrass grows rapidly after wildfires and becomes incredibly flammable. After extinguishing the fire, the first thing to come back is cheatgrass.

“It starts this terrible cycle that’s really hard to combat,” Gardetto said.

Defined burn targets are vegetation that carries flames into forest canopies, where they can explode into massive wildfires. But it can take two to five years for them to plan and prepare. And completing them is a never ending task.

Targeting one forest, other forests continue to develop, creating “this huge construction in the landscape”, Gardetto said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and US Forest Service chief Vicky Christiansen signed an agreement last August that committed the state and federal agency to increasing forest and wildland remediation to 1 million acres (405,000 ha) annually by 2025 it was done.

They have a long way to go to reach this goal. Cal Fire, a state agency responsible for protecting more than 31 million acres (12.5 million hectares) of California’s privately owned wildland, has grown to about 20,000 acres (8,100 hectares) with fire and thinning scheduled since last summer through March Taken treatment.

Meanwhile, California increased the number of seasonal firefighters by nearly 50%, according to Cal Fire spokesman Lynn Tolmachoff.

With the fire season lengthening each year, Colorado lawmakers last spring allocated nearly $ 3 million to increase staffing in the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, its director Mike Morgan said.

“Historically, wildland firefighters were college students. They would drop out of school on Memorial Day, they would fight fires, and they would go back to school on Labor Day,” Morgan said. “Okay, now we’re every year of the year. Months are on fire, and that’s why we need firefighters throughout the year. “

Gardetto said the Bureau of Land Management is replacing its seasonal fire force full-time with a budget increase of $ 13 million.

Despite all these efforts, people are being warned to be prepared for the forest fire.

The Oregon Office of Emergency Management on Monday advised residents to pack a bag and plan an evacuation.

“The unusually dry condition and pre-season fires on the landscape are causing concern for the 2021 wildfire season,” the agency said. “Now is the time for Oregonians to prepare themselves, their families and their homes for wildfires.”

There is a lot that can be done to increase the resilience of wildfires, but often there are tradeoffs, said Erica Fleischman, professor at Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.

Cities or states may require safe spaces around homes. Building codes may call for fire resistant materials. He said that this would increase construction costs, but would also mean that a house would be less likely to burn down and would need to be rebuilt, he said.

“The insurance industry and the building industry and communities and lawmakers will need willpower to make these changes,” she said.

Fleishman also believes that more determined fires can be carried out at the wild-urban interface, but added that “society is prone to risk.”

“Right now, in many cases, there is not enough will to do it,” she said.


Associated Press writer Don Thompson in Sacramento, California; Thomas Peppert in Denver; And Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco contributed to this report.


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