Letters from the West

The California wildfire is a disaster that’s anything but natural

The familiar words come in staccato fashion from the frantic voices of the television reporters trying to describe the fire that raced through Santa Rosa, Calif. this week, destroying thousands of homes and killing scores of people – a death toll that’s likely to grow.

“Inferno,” they call it. “Conflagration.”

I understand their challenge trying to describe a firestorm spawned by nearly hurricane-force winds that creates its own weather and unleashes energy similar to a nuclear explosion. I’ve been trying to find a way to describe the indescribable for 30 years.

For these reporters in wine country it’s an unprecedented event. Local firefighters say they’ve never seen a fire move so fast.

You won’t hear that from the Hotshots, the smokejumpers and the fire bosses who have been battling blazes across the West over the past 29 years. They’ve seen it all before — repeatedly.

This era began in 1988 in and around Yellowstone National Park, when more than 700,000 acres burned in America’s first megafire since 1910. The next year, 40,000 acres burned through Lowman in four days. In 1991, hundreds of homes were destroyed in Oakland. Large fires in 2003 and 2007 each destroyed thousands of homes in Southern California.

Colorado Springs; Yarnell, Ariz.; Los Alamos, N.M.; San Diego; Los Angeles; Twisp, Wash.; Gatlinburg, Tenn.; and Kamiah have all seen firestorms burn through their neighborhoods. With the Pioneer Fire last summer, Lowman saw its second megafire in less than 30 years.

Nearly 70 percent of Southern Idaho national forests have burned in the past 30 years. Millions of acres of rangeland have burned, often multiple times in that period.

Yellowstone was the signal fire of climate change. Fire season is now 70 days longer.

In this age of megafires, extreme fire conditions have become routine. That’s why Idaho’s congressional delegation has been trying for more than a decade to get Congress to treat catastrophic wildfires like the disasters they are — tapping emergency funds rather than letting fires burn through land management budgets.

When I spoke to Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson recently in Washington D.C., he said this year’s fires are finally convincing leaders in Congress that it’s time to act. That’s good news because it will allow the Forest Service to quit robbing its other programs, including thinning and logging programs that reduce the impacts of fires.

But we need to be realistic about what we can expect and about what we can do to reduce the threat of megafires. We put out 97 percent or more of U.S. wildfires while they’re small. The 3 percent we can’t stop grow into these megafires, fueled by conditions like we saw this week in Santa Rosa: high winds, low humidity, high temperatures.

These megafires are not natural disasters. They are the totally predictable effect of the burning of fossil fuels, and the growth of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere that have caused global warming.

Logging wouldn’t have saved Santa Rosa any more than it would have saved Fall Creek near Anderson Ranch Reservoir, destroyed in 2013. It’s only when a fire isn’t spurred on by this blend of factors that thinning, prescribed burning and good land management can help suppress it — or at least steer it away from homes and communities.

Unfortunately, since we can’t stop these megafires, it’s unlikely we will be able to bend the curve on fire spending even if we have the money to log and thin millions of acres of forests across the country. The Forest Service, which incurs about 70 percent of all fire costs, predicted annual firefighting costs will average nearly $1.8 billion by 2026, up from an average of $1 billion in 2013.

The tab is already at more than $2 billion this year.

The smoke that choked us this summer has become routine. There is no end in sight until we quit treating stroms such as Hurricane Harvey and fires such as the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa as natural. Then, we can together adapt to fight the climate change we helped cause.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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