Forest fires - can we learn their lessons?
GOING NATURE’S WAY
By Kate Crowley
As I look outdoors this morning, I find myself wondering whether the sky is really covered with clouds or if it is more high altitude haze coming from the forest fires out west. Several times this summer we have found ourselves witnessing the after effects of hundreds of wildfires burning in Canada, California, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana – each with more than 10 major fires burning right now. We have all been in awe of the effect it produces on our sunsets, creating magnificent auroras of orange, yellow and pink. For people living in those states and in Saskatchewan, the reality has been much less pleasant. Smoke has descended into valleys and created dangerous air quality, not to mention the life altering devastation for people who have had the fires destroy their homes and surrounding forests.
As of right now - 30,000 fire fighters in the U.S. are battling these blazes; the largest number in 15 years and even that is not enough. U.S. soldiers are being trained to help, as well as assistance from Canadian firefighters and possibly fighters from New Zealand and Australia. The economic impact of these fires is immense. According to the Forest Service, the U.S. spends $100 million per week when it is at wildfire preparedness level 5, as it is now. At this rate fighting fires will consume more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s budget this year and could be up to two thirds of it by the year 2025, based on current trends.
The Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture and Secretary Tom Vilsack recently said, “Fire seasons are growing longer, hotter, more unpredictable and more expensive every year, and there is no end in sight. Within just 10 years, two out of every three dollars the Forest Service gets from Congress will be spent on fire programs, which leaves much fewer resources for the very restoration projects that have been proven to reduce the risk of wildfire and improve forest health,”
So far in 2015, 7.1 million acres have burned, with current fires accounting for over 1 million of that total. Of those, 5 million burned in Alaska earlier this year. Many of these fires are being started by thunderstorms with lightning strikes and little rain. The drought in California explains their fires, but in the other states, recent winters with less snow cover and typically dry summers have led to this summer of devastation.
We in the upper Midwest, with a good season of rain can feel extremely lucky and grateful, but we know all too well the worry of dry springs and summers and the fires that can ensue. The Boundary Waters has seen that in recent years. Our home is surrounded by State Forest and every April I pray for sufficient rain to prevent any sparks from igniting grass along the road edge.
And we know this part of our state has seen historic fires that destroyed towns and thousands of square miles of land. It was in September of 1894 that the great Hinckley fire roared through Pine County. The Moose Lake/Cloquet fire of 1918 began near the rail lines in Sturgeon Lake. It destroyed 38 towns and villages, killed over 400 people and covered 1500 square miles. Amazingly, the fuel was the same as that of the Hinckley fire – slash piles left by the loggers. Is human memory and ability to change really that weak?
It is a question I ponder even now. The climate is changing, warming – and with it the levels and locations of precipitation. Wet areas are becoming wetter and dry areas drier. The Union of Concerned Scientists has shown that, “High spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snow-melt typically cause soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of drought and a longer wildfire season, particularly in the western United States.” These dry conditions increase the likelihood that, once wildfires are started they will be more intense and long-burning.
The Union also reports that, “Wildfires in the western United States have been increasing in frequency and duration since the mid-1980s, occurring nearly four times more often, burning more than six times the land area, and lasting almost five times as long.”
I would like to believe that we have become more intelligent since the early 1900s and that knowing how the climate is changing we would do whatever possible to limit our contributions to it. There is no question that what we do now has the power to influence the frequency and severity of wildfires and their effects on us. We can create buffer zones between property and susceptible forests, be sure to meet our homes and cities fire-safety standards and most importantly take steps to reduce our impact on the climate. We can do things individually to be sure, but until we have the support of our government and those we elect to make significant changes to policy and support for renewable energy, we are only going to pass along our problems to the next generation, who will look back at us, as I look back at those people in 1918 and ask, ‘how could they not see the need for change?’