Last week was Wildfire Awareness Week in California, a time when firefighters and forest managers travel up and down the state talking about fire risk and public safety. Usually that would mean wildfire conditions were just picking up, with higher temperatures drying out fuels nurtured by winter rain and snowpack.
That's not the case this year, though. For much of the Golden State, last year's fire season never really ended.
"We knew we were under very different conditions when we started January, literally the first week of January, with a 350-acre fire in Humboldt County," said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Typically, he said, Humboldt in midwinter gets more precipitation than anywhere else in the country.
"When we're seeing that type of fire activity in those places in California, that indicates that the entire state is ready to go," he added.
Conditions are fire-ripe all over the parched West, from eastern Oregon down to Arizona and across to the Oklahoma Panhandle. But nowhere is the situation more dire than in California. Three years of low precipitation and negligible snowpack has left vegetation conditions highly combustible. Water levels are low in many reservoirs, and the spring rains many hoped for have been all but absent.
The southern parts of the state have been under fire threat since the spring of 2013, and firefighters and ground and aviation resources have deployed two to three months early in parts of central California. 2014, Pimlott said, will likely be a year for the record books.
Controlled burns -- necessary but more dangerous
California isn't the only state bracing for a hard fire season. Ninety percent of the Southwest is currently experiencing drought, with moisture levels for some regions less than 2 percent of the norm. Add to that above-normal densities of fire fuels and lightning storms brought on by an El Niño monsoon season, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
The Forest Service and Department of the Interior announced last week that they already anticipate breaking their firefighting budget by $470 million, citing climate change as one of the primary causes for the rising costs. The Forest Service already allocates about 40 percent of its budget to fire suppression, up from 15 percent just two decades ago.
For communities across the West, the spring has seen a scramble of activity as homeowners, firefighters and forest managers try to shore up their defenses. That means clearing a buffer zone around structures in the wildland urban interface, creating fuel breaks and having contingencies ready in case of evacuation.
In some areas, crews are fighting fire with fire, burning out fuel breaks or particularly dangerous stands before an uncontrolled spark can get to them.
Fire is one of the most important tools at a forester's disposal and, under controlled conditions, can be extremely useful in thinning fuels on overgrown landscapes. That kind of large-scale landscape management is usually conducted in the autumn, however, as states head into cooler, wetter conditions.
The kinds of operations being undertaken now are smaller in scale, said Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.
"In the spring, you're already seeing conditions getting hotter and windier. If you're going to manage landscapes with fire, you've got to keep the scale of your operations limited," he said.
Under the current volatile conditions, however, even these smaller projects can go awry. A controlled burn in central Oklahoma jumped its perimeter last week and quickly burned out of control in the surrounding dry grasslands. It eventually reached a mobile home park, where it destroyed 20 homes and killed one person.
As of late last week, authorities were still unsure who had been conducting the burn.
Forest thinning becomes more essential
Apart from a dramatic downscaling of greenhouse gases that the world puts into the atmosphere, there's not a lot that can change the climate's course in the near term. As the recent National Climate Assessment from the White House points out, fire seasons are projected to lengthen and intensify in the West for some time to come (ClimateWire, May 7).
Controlling the landscape, however, is a different matter.
Most believe that with the right resources, the overgrowth problem can be, if not fixed, then at least improved on. That's led to a wide range of approaches, from the ordinary to the unorthodox.
The Forest Service, for example, has been expanding its partnership with the private sector to strategically thin around communities and in other threatened areas. Programs like Stewardship Contracting allow commercial loggers to harvest some fuels, under the condition that they do so in a planned way.
In the chaparral shrublands of the Southwest -- regions that burn with the intensity of a crown fire due to the resinous content of chaparral's leaves -- some foresters have taken a different approach, introducing herds of goats to graze fuel breaks in the vegetation. The goats can eat between 5 and 15 percent of their body weight a day and aerate the soil with their hooves as they move over it.
The goal in all of these cases is to return the landscape to a previous state where its vegetation cover isn't so thick, Covington said. "Ideally, once you get the land restored to its natural conditions, you can just let fires go," he said. "In fact, you want vegetation to burn fairly regularly because you don't want it to get overgrown."
Ultimately, though, there's no better substitute for fire than fire. Prescribed burning works faster and is better suited to the landscape than any other form of manual thinning, foresters say.
Even that, though, requires resources and personnel, more of which are diverted toward fighting fires as the season lengthens.
For the moment, there's little the West can do except batten down the hatches, hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
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