How should the United States prepare for another intense season of forest fires? Œ œ Climate News

Amid an unprecedented heat wave in the United States, President Joe Biden will meet Wednesday with Western state governors, cabinet members and federal emergency management officials to prepare for what the U.S. warns. experts said it is already one of the most intense drought and fires seasons too.

The president has already pledged to increase firefighting pay from the current rate of $ 13 an hour, which he called “a ridiculously low salary.”

Experts are looking to see if Biden can adequately prepare the United States for another year of dangerous fires and extreme temperatures, while also driving forests and climate in balance in the long run.

But they warn that, in the short run, the danger is already removed.

Smoke plumes rise from a flame as a raging fire erupts in Arizona on June 7, 2021, in this image obtained by social media [File: Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management via Reuters]

“In terms of this year, there’s not much we can do except to make sure firefighters have what they need, and that FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and the Forest Service and the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] they coordinate most closely with state governments, ”explains Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University.

“No matter how much governments try to take risk under control, it will take a few years to move forward on the problem,” said Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Why do forest fires get worse?

Forest fires are already in Arizona, California and other states, and water reservoirs are at historic lows.

The western United States knows about ten years megadrought which has not been seen for 1000 years, scientists say. Climate change accelerates drought by altering the water cycle and causing increased evaporation over already low precipitation.

This means a longer, more intense season of forest fires this year and in future years, experts explain, because decades of poor planning have left dense forests with plants that are now dry and ready. to burn.

A firefighter helicopter shows a drop of water in Los Alamitos, California, on June 14 [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]

The pure area of burnt earth since wildfires have increased dramatically since the 1970s, reports the Reuters news agency, and the United States now regularly experiences “mega-fires” – those that burn more than 100,000 acres (40,000 acres). By 2020, forest fires have burned a record 10 million acres in the western United States.

Humans are the most common cause of fires, and population growth in the West with residential construction in fire-prone areas is triggering more dangerous fires. All of this has contributed to increasingly deadly wildfires and health problems such as heart attacks and asthma from heavy smoking.

What should Biden do?

Experts are clear on this: It’s American forests they are too dense and should be proactively diluted using mechanical compensation and prescribed burns. To do that, the U.S. Forest Service needs more money.

Last year, the Forest Service experienced a huge reduction in its dangerous fuel reduction budget, Wara explained. Prior to the pandemic, it was spending more than $ 300m a year, but was cut to less than $ 100m a year in 2021. Its funding has been increased for 2022 but is still below pre-pandemic levels.

“We need to think differently about this issue, and the Forest Service in its 2022 budget does not think otherwise,” Wara said. “It’s more of the same.”

The Forest Service wants to make two to four times more dangerous fuel reductions compared to current levels, Wara said, but it will actually do 10 times more.

Federal and state governments can prevent huge economic losses in the future by investing now, Field said. He used California for example: in 2019, California has suffered economic losses of more than $ 30 billion from fires, but could spend an estimated $ 5 billion to $ 10 billion a year over the next five years to get fires under control. However, California still spends too little; its budget for fires for 2022 is $ 1bn.

“The investment needed to get on a safe and stable track would generally be less than the losses in a bad year of fire,” Field said.

Smoke from forest fires falls low in the valleys of the Uinta Mountains in eastern Utah on June 21, 2021[File: Jim Urquhart/Reuters]

Experts believe it is necessary to return to the strategy that Native Americans adopted before they were forcibly expelled from their land. The idea is to reintroduce “good fire”. Hundreds of years ago, less intense fires crackled and cracked regularly through the forests, and the natives used planned fires to keep the ecosystem in balance. When the settlers took over the land, the policies were incoherent and harmful.

John Bailey, a professor at the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, was a firefighter in the 1980s. Back then, firefighters believed they were doing the right thing by suppressing fires, but their efforts have allowed forests. to grow dangerously dense, and have transformed agricultural land into forest, paving a path for fires in more large areas of land.

In the 1990s, policies to protect endangered spotted owl habitats led to a sharp decline in forest collection and management in the west, but Bailey said we actually need to “ good fire ”to renew that habitat. “Fire is one.” destructive force and a creative force to maintain old growth, and that’s the path we want to take if we want to preserve it, ”Bailey said.

“There needs to be a fire, a beautiful fire, a low-intensity surface fire, forest floor fire every decade or so, probably at its longest every 20 years,” Wara said. “And that means every year we need to treat something like 10 percent of the total landscape. We’re nothing like that – we’re falling around one percent. It was something that didn’t matter so much because the Climate change was not overshadowed by the fire season, but now, of course, it is. ”

Wara added that the Biden administration needs to fund further reduction of fire risk before disaster strikes through FEMA.

A new forest work force

Wara said that Forest Service employees are underpaid and that many are out of season. “To do this job, they need a new workforce.”

The way the current system works is that, in low season, people are employed to release hazardous fuels, and in the off season they work as firefighters. Because the fire seasons are now longer and more intense, they start firefighting work earlier, and when the fire season is over, they need a break to heal mentally and physically, and they need to see their families. . This means that it does not happen as a dangerous fuel offset.

“It’s not a sustainable model,” Wara said.

Bailey suggested employing a federal workforce to manage forests, similar to the Civil Conservation Corps, a public works assistance program in the 1930s and 1940s.

Wara said there is “a huge opportunity” to participate Native Americans in a new model and workforce, because many areas need treatment boundary reserves. He said policymakers should consider giving back land to Native Americans to manage.

“If we are going to conserve more land, we need to think about it in a different way that takes into account the racial injustice and genocide that have taken place as a result of the federal and private ownership schemes of the land that we have now.” He said.

“The fire problem is something we can get under control, but we have to be proactive and ambitious,” Field said.

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