Letters from the West

Fire behavior gets scarier as climate gets hotter and drier

Before the rain and cooler weather came to southwest Idaho last weekend, firefighters on the Buck Fire on the Boise National Forest were reporting behavior they didn't expect for early July including fire burning hot against the wind.

Firefighters were getting a line around the fire with their aggressive suppression tactics and manageable conditions Friday but had it remained hot and dry and the wind blew things could have been very different. Susan Blake, the Boise Forest’s spokeswoman, said that while the 2.6 million acre national forest that covers much of the upper Boise River watershed and parts of the Payette and Salmon watersheds has small fires early, they don’t usually call in national management teams until the end of July.

“This fire has exhibited interesting behavior, such as having winds coming from the southwest and the fire not being push to the northeast,” Blake said. “If anything, it’s moved slightly into the wind.”

One view many in Idaho carry is that this behavior is due to the heavy fuels in the forest from a century of fire suppression and a lack of logging for the last 25 years. But in 2015’s record year only about 10 percent of the fires nationally burned in dense forest. Most were in sagebrush-steppe, grasslands and brush country.

Fires are burning in Siberia and in May the Fort McMurray Fire in Alberta Fire burned 1.5 million acres and consumed 2,400 homes.

The recognition that the fire we face in the West is unprecedented is growing. This week Allison Linville, an aircraft dispatcher on the Panhandle National Forest last season, wrote a powerful article in High Country News’ Writers on the Range “Wildfire in the West has become an uncontrollable force.”

Linville points out that 25 years ago a 500-acre fire was big. Last year when all of the firefighting resources in the nation were booked, Panhandle officials had no choice but to leave fires of this size that weren’t threatening lives and property to burn. Dispatchers and fire managers were working 12-hour days, six days a week into October in what was considered the worse season since 1926.

Linville expressed the frustration she feels everytime she hears someone blame the fire or land managers for the wildfires we all have faced increasingly for the last 30 years,

“Given the conditions now piling up — hot summers, long fire seasons, low snowpack, heavy fuel loading, an ignorant public, erratic storms — there is simply not enough education or experience available to help teach a fire manager what to do,” Linville wrote. “It’s not the managers’ fault; it’s not any one person’s fault.”

In 1995, fire suppression made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget. This year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the budget will be dedicated to fighting fires.

“Left unchecked, the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67 percent,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told Congress last Fall. “We are at a critical moment in the history of the Forest Service. Urgent action is needed in order to ensure that the Forest Service does not become further hindered by the continually increasing percentage of our budget that is dedicated to wildfire suppression activities.”

In 2015 the Forest Service spent 24 days with all its available ground and air assets committed to priority work on more than 50,000 wildfires that burned 9 million acres. We lost 13 wildland firefighters as well, a cost that can’t be measured in dollars.

The U.S. could spend the entire firefighting budget on logging and it wouldn’t be enough alone to address the fuel issue in the face of climate change. The tens of million acres that have burned over the past 20 years have reduced some of the fuels, but at a steep cost.

Linville offers no management solution to the growing danger of fire except to keep people away from it. As we Boise residents learned again with the Table Rock Fire last month that’s a tall order when we live in a land filled with fuel.

But offers a starting place that is important as we develop solutions.

“In order to avoid losing lives in this time of unprecedented fire behavior, fire managers — and all Westerners — need to recognize that there is no model for what we are already seeing this summer.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker