SALEM, Ore. – (AP) – Wearing soot-stained and fire-resistant clothing and helmets, several hoe-armed wildland firefighters moved through a stand of ponderosa pine as flames tore through brushwood.
The firefighters weren’t there to put out the fire. They had started it.
The prescribed burn, ignited this month near the scenic mountain town of Bend, is part of a massive effort in the wilderness of the American West to prepare for a fire season that is expected to be even worse than this record of last year.
The US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have hand thinned, machine and prescribed burns about 1.8 million acres (728,000 hectares) of forest and brush since last season, agency officials said. at the Associated Press. They typically treat around 3 million (1.2 million hectares) of acres each year.
All of this activity, however, has barely scratched the surface. The federal government owns approximately 640 million acres (260 million hectares) in the United States. All but 4% are found in the west, including Alaska, some of which is unsuitable for prescribed burning.
“All of these steps are going in the right direction, but the challenge is great and complex,” said John Bailey, professor of forestry and fire management at Oregon State University. “And there is still a long way to go to even turn the corner.”
The efforts come up against a convergence of dark forces.
A severe drought has turned forests and grasslands into dry fuels, ready to ignite from a reckless motorhome or lightning strike. More and more people are building in the areas bordering wildlands, expanding the so-called interface between wildlands and cities, an area where wildfires have the greatest impact on people. Invasive and highly flammable vegetation is spreading uncontrollably in the West.
“I’m seeing probably the worst combination of conditions of my life,” said Derrick DeGroot, a county commissioner in Klamath County, southern Oregon. “We have a huge fuel load in the forests, and we are facing a drought unlike what we have probably seen in the last 115 years.”
Asked about his concern about the 2021 fire season, DeGroot said, “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m a 12. Nothing looks good.”
In other prevention measures in the West, utility companies are removing vegetation around power lines and are prepared to impose power cuts when those lines threaten to start a fire.
Armies of firefighters are reinforced. And communities offer incentives for residents to make their own properties fire resistant.
Still, a lot of work remains to be done to change the region’s trajectory with fire, especially in two key areas, said Scott Stephens, professor of wildfire science at the University of California at Berkeley.
“One is to better prepare people for the inevitability of fires in areas like the forest-city interface. This includes new construction, ”he said. “And the second is to better prepare our ecosystems for climate change and fires.”
At the local level, individuals and communities must create defensible spaces and evacuation plans, he said. At the government level, more resources need to be devoted to forest management.
“I think we’re between a decade and two decades away,” Stephens said. “If we don’t do it seriously, we’re going to frankly watch the forest change right in front of our eyes because of fire and climate change, drought, bugs, things of that nature.
Part of the problem is that increasing resilience to wildfires often requires trade-offs, said Erica Fleishman, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.
Cities or states might demand defensible spaces around homes. Building codes may require fire resistant materials. This would increase construction costs, but also mean houses would be less likely to burn down and would need to be rebuilt, she said.
“The insurance industry, the construction industry, communities and legislators will all need to be willing to create these changes,” she said.
Fleishman also believes more prescribed fires could be carried out at the forest-city interface, but said “society is risk averse.”
“Right now there is not, in many cases, a lot of will to do it,” she said.
Prescribed burns target vegetation that carries the flames into the forest canopy, where they can explode into massive forest fires.
Their planning and preparation can take two to five years. And getting them through is a never-ending task, said Jessica Gardetto, spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
While targeting one forest, other forests continue to grow, creating “this vast accumulation across the landscape,” she said.
Along with overgrown forests, the West faces a new threat – cheat grass, which grows prolifically after a wildfire and becomes incredibly flammable.
Gardetto said that trying to get rid of the encroaching grass was like the endless toil of Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure who was forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll as it approached. summit over and over again.
Once the fire is out, the first thing to come back is cheatgrass.
“It starts this horrible cycle which is really hard to fight,” she said.
California Governor Gavin Newsom and U.S. Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen signed an agreement last August committing the state and federal agency to expand treatment of forests and wildlands to 1 million acres (405,000 hectares) per year by 2025.
They have a long way to go to achieve this goal. Cal Fire, a state agency responsible for protecting more than 31 million acres (12.5 million hectares) of private wilderness in California, has treated some 20,000 acres (8,100 hectares) of prescribed fires and d ‘thinning from last summer to March.
Meanwhile, California has increased the number of seasonal firefighters by nearly 50%, according to Lynne Tolmachoff, spokesperson for Cal Fire.
With the fire season getting longer every year, Colorado lawmakers allocated about $ 3 million last spring to augment the staff of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said Mike Morgan, its director.
“Historically, wildland firefighters were university students. They got out of school on Remembrance Day, they went to fight the fire and they went back to school on Labor Day, ”Morgan said. “Well, now we have fires every month of the year, so we need firefighters all year round.”
The Bureau of Land Management is transforming its seasonal firefighting force to full-time with a budget increase of $ 13 million, Gardetto said.
Despite all of these efforts, warnings are being issued telling people to prepare for the worst.
The Oregon Emergency Management Office advised residents on Monday to pack a bag and prepare an evacuation plan.
“Abnormally dry conditions and preseason fires in the landscape are of concern for the 2021 wildfire season,” the agency said. “Now is the time for the people of Oregon to prepare themselves, their families and their homes for wildfires.”
Associated Press writers Don Thompson in Sacramento, California; Thomas Peipert in Denver; and Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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