Western Wildfire Today

November 22, 2013

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu

By Tim Lucas, Senior Writer

PRESCOTT, AZ -- When 19 firefighters died on June 30 fighting the 8,000-acre Yarnell Hill Fire outside Prescott, Ariz., it was the nations worst loss of firefighters since the 9-1-1 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Their tragic deaths were the latest in a long list of sobering statistics about the upsurge in catastrophic wildfires occurring across the American West in recent years:

  • According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), wildland  fires have burned more than 45 million acres in 12 Western states since 2003. That’s a burned area about the size of the state of Wisconsin.
  • Fires now burn more than twice as much land across the West each year, on average, as they did 40 years ago and  fire season is two-and-a-half months longer, according to NIFC data.
  • Blazes that scorch more than 10,000 acres are about seven times more common today on U.S. Forest Service land than in the 1970s. Over the last decade, more than 2 million acres of agency land—an area larger than Yellowstone National Park—have burned each year, on average.
  • Nearly 200 people, including 113  firefighters, have died from injuries or accidents related to Western wildfires since 2002, and an estimated 50,000 homes or structures have been damaged or destroyed.
  • Last year, the U.S. government spent about $1.9 billion to suppress the region’s fires. Estimated combined federal, state, local and tribal  fire-suppression costs over the decade topped $22 billion.

The outlook for future fire seasons is no less sobering.

wildfire western Homes in f re area with just one road in and out story

Homes in fire area with just one road in and out.(Photo: Scottee Cantrell)

The National Research Council predicts the average size of the area burned annually in the West could quadruple for every 1.8°F of temperature increase in coming years. The IPCC 4th Assessment Report projects summer temperatures there could increase by between 3.6F and 9F by mid-century.

“If you do the math, it’s a truly terrifying prospect,” says Norman L. Christensen Jr., research professor and founding dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment. “But there are ways to reduce future risks.”

Christensen has studied the role of fire in western ecosystems for more than 40 years. He helped draft new fire management policies for the National Park Service following the 1988 wildfires that burned nearly 800,000 acres in Yellowstone National Park, and testi ed before Congress in 2003 on the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, which removed administrative barriers to cutting timber on  re-prone public lands, ostensibly to reduce fuel loads.

Wildfires like we’re seeing today— that burn hotter, spread faster and occur more frequently than they might naturally—are the unintended legacy of years of misguided fire management practices, he says.

Periodic low-intensity wildfires are a natural and beneficial part of the Western landscape. They promote healthy new growth by thinning overcrowded trees and clearing away grasses, shrubs and dead wood. Healthy mature trees of many Western species are naturally adapted to survive them.

For much of the past century, however, government agencies have suppressed these fires to protect nearby homes and property. They’ve tried to reduce excess fuel loads on some  fire-prone public lands by allowing logging and grazing there, instead.

These efforts, intended to create “fire-proof forests,” have back fired, Christensen says.

Without the cleansing force of  fire, forests across much of the West have grown too dense and their fuel loads have built up to dangerous levels. Adding insult to injury, many overcrowded pine forests, particularly in the Rockies and Southwest, have been attacked by bark beetle infestations exacerbated by recent drought and warmer winters. Infestations have spread across more than 80 million acres, killing more than 70 percent of susceptible trees in some areas. These trees pose a higher fire risk until they shed their dead needles. 

“Many forests are more  ammable now than they were before, increasing the risk that any fires that break out today have the potential to cause much greater damage,” Christensen says.
With no relief in sight, government must reprioritize how and where its fire management dollars are spent, he and other experts say.

A good place to start, they agree, would be rethinking how we manage the forests themselves.

From the Ground Up

Burnt logs cut to prevent erosion behind Sky Corral lodge story

Burnt logs cut to prevent erosion behind Sky Corral lodge. (Photo: Scottee Cantrell)

“We need to bring western landscapes back to a point where  fire can safely resume its natural role in wildland ecology,” says Monique E. Rocca, associate professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University.

Rocca earned her PhD in ecology in 2004 from the Nicholas School. Much of her research focuses on understanding how wildfires, beetle outbreaks, management treatments and other abrupt changes alter the long-term dynamics of western mountain forests.

“Fires in western forests are not going to be stopped or ‘managed away,’” she explains. “Most of our forests have large enough fuel loads and frequent enough dry-season climate conditions that  fire is inevitable. And the increased incidence of drought that’s forecast for coming decades only makes wildfire more likely.”

Restoring the natural  recycles that occurred before settlement and fire suppression began is the best long-term solution for protecting forests and people alike, she says, but achieving this “admittedly idealistic” goal could take lifetimes. In the meantime, our best bet for reducing the odds of catastrophic  fires is to implement land management practices targeted speci cally at removing the most hazardous fuels from the forests at highest risk.

There needs to be a higher priority placed on the safe reintroduction of  fire into the areas that have been most dramatically altered since European settlement,” Rocca says. These areas,which include many dry pine forests in the Rockies and Southwest, contain uncharacteristically heavy fuel build-up on the ground and in the tree canopies. When wildfires occur under dry, windy conditions they burn so intensely that they often kill very large swaths of trees.

“Ignited surface fuels such as dry grasses, pine needles and shrubs can create enough heat to scorch a tree up to a height of 150 feet,” Christensen explains. Strategically placed prescribed burns would help remove these fuels, thin the overcrowded understories, and restore natural spacing between trees. This could help avert long-term ecological devastation from future fires, especially in Ponderosa pine forests, which are adapted to survive low-severity re but do not regenerate quickly after trees have been killed.

Prohibiting indiscriminate logging on fire-prone lands also should be a priority.

“Policymakers have often viewed logging as a way to remove dead and diseased wood, and reduce fuel loads,” Christensen says. “But indiscriminate logging aggravates the problem by littering a re-prone forest’s oor with slash and other combustible debris, and thinning its canopy.” The regrowth that follows this logging can be quite flammable, and the loss of canopy increases wind speeds and air temperatures, allowing res to spread faster and farther than they would normally.

The bene ts of addressing these high-priority issues would extend far beyond the forest edge, Rocca stresses. By reducing fuel loads and restoring a more natural spacing to over-dense forests, managers can help reduce the risk that devastating mega fires might break out and threaten nearby development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI).

The WUI is a beautiful but high-risk zone located at the increasingly porous boundary between the West’s fire-prone ecosystems and its rapidly expanding suburbs. Once sparsely populated, it’s now home to nearly one in four westerners. And with more than 80 percent of the zone still undeveloped, there’s plenty of room for more.

Some estimates project that more than half of the region’s people will live in harm’s way in the WUI by mid-century—a worrisome prospect to land managers and safety experts alike.

Recent studies by economist Patty Champ of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colo., find that most WUI residents, especially newcomers, have only a vague understanding of how their actions—such as adding wood decks

to their homes or failing to clear away trees and shrubs—contribute to fire risks. In some cases, they’re unaware they even live in a high-risk zone; it just looks like a highly desirable, heavily wooded suburb to them.

Residents aren’t the only ones being placed in danger, notes James Saveland, a safety risks analyst at the research station. Many of the 18 firefighters who die, on average, each year ghting U.S. wildfires perish while trying to protect private property.

To discourage high-risk development, lawmakers need to reverse current policies that may unintentionally provide perverse incentives for building in the WUI, Rocca says.

In most areas, local governments have jurisdiction over development policies, she explains. Yet the federal government picks up the biggest piece of the nearly $3 billion annual tab for fire suppression and protection there. Shifting more of this burden back onto local shoulders might reduce future expansion.

Tougher fire standards and building codes also would help reduce risks, Rocca says.

Many public safety experts, she notes, now believe that homeowners in the WUI should be required by local governments to take increased responsibility for their own safety by completing courses in re preparedness, using re-resistant building materials, and clearing away shrubs and trees around their properties to create a “defensible space” that makes it safer and easier for re ghters to protect a home even if the surrounding landscape is consumed.

At the federal level, some experts are calling for Congress to limit the mortgage-interest deduction for homes built in especially vulnerable regions or require homeowners to buy federal fire insurance.

Support for such reforms is coming from both sides of the political divide.

“In Colorado, one of our most liberal counties, Boulder County, and one of our most conservative, El Paso County, have both passed tougher land-use rules and fire standards,” notes Jill Ozarski, natural resources advisor to Sen. Mark Udall. Ozarski received a Master of Environmental Management degree from the Nicholas School in 2001. (See Ozarski pro le on page 25.)

“Protecting lives and property and controlling the costs associated with re suppression and protection is a bipartisan concern,” she says.

Not Something You Hear About

Less widely appreciated, perhaps, are wildfires’ long-term effects on water in the region.

“Wildfires’ impact on water quality is not something you hear about often in news reports, but it’s a major concern here in the West, where most communities rely on snowmelt-fed mountain streams for their primary water supply,” says Lisa Voytko, water-treatment production manager for the city of Fort Collins, Colo.

Fort Collins draws part of its water from the Cache le Poudre River, Voytko explains. When the 2012 High Park Fire burned more than 80,000 acres last June, much of it in the Poudre’s watershed, the city had to shut its river intake valves and rely on a limited supply of backup water from a nearby reservoir for three months. The neighboring city of Greeley had to turn to backup water supplies as well.

Both cities have since installed new water-treatment technologies and infrastructure that should allow them to continue drawing at least a portion of their daily water needs from the Poudre if future fires occur. They’re also forging new partnerships with federal and state land management agencies to help protect downstream water through better stewardship of upstream forests.

Restoring upstream forests so that fires are less severe would also lessen risks to downstream communities from erosion and ooding, says Colorado State hydrologist Lee MacDonald.

Torrential summer rains that followed the High Park Fire sent tons of sediment and ash into area streams and clogged downstream culverts, ponds and storm drains, he notes. Today, more than a year later, there is still little vegetation to hold soil in place on many hillsides. Each new period of heavy rain triggers renewed risks of landslides and ash ooding.

Rist Canyon Road, which runs through the heart of the area burned by the fire, was inundated by oodwaters six times during the summer monsoon this July, notes canyon resident and volunteer re ghter Carol Dollard. Parts of the road were closed or washed away, along with one resident’s cabin.

And comparatively speaking, Fort Collins got off easy. The operators of the Cheesman Reservoir, which supplies about 15 percent of Denver’s water, are still trying to gure out what to do about all the ash and sediment dumped into their facility following the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire back in 2002.

Rising from the Ashes

At the center of the debate about the role humans play in the recent upsurge in western forests are the people who live in the eye of the firestorm: the high-risk WUI.

“Some people say we brought this on ourselves by choosing to live in the forest, but there are risks to living everywhere; at the coast they have hurricanes; in the plains they have tornadoes, in the cities they have more burglaries,” says freelance author and Department of Homeland Security disaster preparedness consultant Linda Masterson, who lost her home west of Fort Collins in the 2011 Crystal Fire.

Most long-time residents of the WUI are “well connected to the land,” says Dollard. They understand the fire risk and take appropriate steps to reduce it by using flame-resistant building materials, clearing defensible spaces, and evacuating promptly when authorities tell them to. Some newer arrivals, however, are “less educated about the natural cycle of things,” she says.

Dollard’s home in Rist Canyon, a 25-minute drive outside Fort Collins, survived the High Park Fire —thanks, she says “to a combination of mitigation and luck.” But as a firefighter who’s been called upon to ght more and more large fires across the state in recent years, she’s well aware of the troubling trend.

Fires as intense as the High Park Fire were once viewed as something that might happen maybe once every 40 years, she says. No one could have foreseen they would become this frequent or extreme.

Despite these concerns, most of the 251 homeowners who lost homes in the High Park Fire plan to rebuild, and many are channeling their energies into new endeavors intended to make their community and others like it safer when fire strikes again.

Longtime WUI residents Dale and Marilyn Snyder have successfully led efforts to reform Colorado’s insurance laws so that homeowners affected by future wildfires will have longer to file their claims and be more likely to receive fair reimbursement.

Masterson has written a book, Surviving Wildfire: Get Prepared, Stay Alive, Rebuild Your Life, and leads public workshops to help others learn from her lessons.

Dollard had led efforts to secure funding to rebuild a local fire station the High Park Fire destroyed. Terrible as the fire was, it didn’t stop them, she stresses. The community is rising from the ashes, but also keeping a closer eye on the horizon.

Such resilience—admirable as it is— may be tested in coming fire seasons, Christensen fears.

Still, there is reason for hope. Forest managers, researchers, public safety officials, firefighters and private landowners are working much more closely now to pool resources and share the latest scientic advances on fire management.

“We’re smarter than we used to be,” Christensen says. “A concerted, region-wide management plan that takes into account local differences and targets the most hazardous fuels can’t bring back the lives, homes and communities already lost. It might, however, make a difference in the future.”

To better understand what’s fueling the recent upsurge in devastating fires across the West, Dean William L. Chameides led a Nicholas School “fact-finding” trip to Fort Collins, Colo., on June 10–14.

The group met with forest managers, scientists, homeowners, business owners and government officials to learn more about the causes of the fires, their impacts, and what could be done to reduce the severity of future blazes and the risks they pose.

Chameides leads the annual fact-finding trips to gain a deeper perspective on environmental issues of critical importance.

Accompanying him on the trip to Colorado were Nicholas School Board of Visitors members Virginia Parker, Michael Parker, Rebecca Patton, Vandana Dake and John Warasalia.

Norman L. Christensen, research professor and founding dean of the Nicholas School, represented the school’s faculty. Christensen has studied fire in western forests for more than 40 years and helped draft new fire management policies for the National Park Service following the 1988 wildfires that burned nearly 800,000 acres in Yellowstone National Park.

Sara Childs, program manager at Duke Forest, and members of the school’s Office of Marketing and Communications also took part in the trip. Childs earned a Master of Environmental Management (MEM) degree from the school in 2008.

On the rst evening, Christensen and Childs teamed with 2004 Nicholas School PhD alumna Monique Rocca, associate professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University, to present an overview of the wildfire issue to the group, using Colorado’s 2012 High Park Fire as a case study.

The High Park Fire burned more than 80,000 acres in the Roosevelt National Forest just west of Fort Collins. Ignited by lightning on June 9 and fueled by high winds, it raged for three weeks, destroying more than 250 homes and killing one person.

The following morning, Nicholas School alum Jill Ozarski MEM/MPP’ 01, natural resources advisor to U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, joined trip participants for a helicopter tour of the High Park Fire area and surrounding communities. After the ight, she led a Q&A on wildfire and forest management policy.

Over the next two days, the Nicholas School group met with a broad array of local stakeholders to gain their perspectives on the issue, including:

  • Scientists and forest managers from the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station and the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee Grasslands;
  • Joyce Berry, dean of Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources;
  • Municipal water production managers and watershed specialists from the cities of Fort Collins and Greeley, whose water supply was affected by the High Park Fire;
  • Colorado State University hydrologist Lee MacDonald, an expert on post-fire erosion;
  • Peter Brown, a fire ecologist and director of the Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research Lab;
  • Brad Modefitt, owner of Mountain Whitewater Descents, a Fort Collins area rafting company that was forced to close during the High Park Fire;
  • Staff members at Sky Corral Lodge, a summer camp located near the fire’s point of origin;
  • More than two dozen community members, brought together by firefighter and resident Carol Dollard, who were evacuated during the fire, and many of whom either lost their homes in it or helped fight it as volunteer firefighters;
  • Brian Verhulst, a forester at Rocky Mountain National Park;
  • Claire Harper MEM ’02, a partnership coordinator and program manager for the U.S. Forest Service in Denver; and
  • Craig Harper MEM ’02 a budget analyst for the Colorado Legislative Council’s House Appropriations Committee.

“The people we met with and the places we toured have given us a much broader understanding of the causes of mega fires in the West and their impacts on the ecosystem and local communities,” says Chameides.

“By suppressing wildfires for much of the last century, we weren’t getting rid of fire risks, we were just putting off the inevitable and turning our forests into tinderboxes,” he says. “Fortunately, things are changing. Managers and policymakers once again recognize the need to restore a natural fire regime and thin forests to make the West less vulnerable. But time is of the essence. As one scientist we spoke to said, it’s not a matter of if the next big fire will occur, but when.”

Tim Lucas is Senior Writer for Dukenvironment magazine and The Nicholas School's Director of Marketing Communications.