MISSOULA — The buildup of forest fuels across Western states combined with modern suppression tactics and a warming climate have led to an explosion of wildfires that are growing to sizes – and costs – unheard of 30 years ago.
Given climate models over the next 50 years, the problem will likely grow worse without a change in policy, Jerry Williams told an audience of 600 on Tuesday at the Large Wildland Fires Conference.
“Active management is often met with a series of discouraging and nearly insurmountable obstacles,” Williams said. “No action has become the default alternative, compounding this problem over time.”
Williams, the retired national director of fire and aviation management with the U.S. Forest Service, opened day two of the weeklong wildland fire conference at the University of Montana.
In a strongly worded speech – and in place of what Williams described as a lack of political will – he challenged the audience of fire experts to press lawmakers and land managers for substantial change.
The pressure placed on fire crews and incident managers who are left to deal with the growing number of large fires has become increasingly and dangerously cumbersome, putting crews at risk while costs soar.
In the past two years, the Forest Service said Tuesday, it has had to transfer $440 million and $505 million from other accounts to pay for fire suppression. Over the past 12 years, the agency shifted $3.2 billion from other programs to cover costs.
This year, the agency said it expects to run out of funds to fight wildfires before the end of the wildfire season, triggering the need for transfers from other accounts.
“We’re suffering the worst wildfires since America organized to eliminate the large-fire problem,” Williams said. “These high-cost, high-loss wildfires on unprecedented scales are becoming the new normal, particularly in the American West.”
Williams said the regulatory policies that influence the management of public lands were enacted largely during a cooler, wetter climate seen in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
But widespread drought across the West, coupled with inadequate fuel reduction efforts and rapid suppression efforts, has left ponderosa pine forests ripe for stand-replacing fires.
Williams said seven of 11 Western states have suffered their worst wildfires on record over the past two decades – some more than once. Federal, state and local governments are struggling to meet their mandates for protection while controlling costs.
“With the USFS in the early 1990s, the fire aviation management portion of the total agency budget was about 8 percent,” said Williams. “Today, it’s bumping half of the total agency budget. Some say the federal government this year is projected to spend $1.8 billion dealing with large fire threats.”
Natasha Stavros of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said recent research suggests that very large wildfires are expected to increase in number and intensity over the next 50 years.
The study placed different indices against large-fire climatology and that of very large fires. Researchers found predictable windows for unmanageable fire growth in four Western regions, each showing potential for very large wildfires under the changing climate.
“When we examine the seasonality, we can see that we not only have increased probabilities going into the future, but we also have a longer season of those increased probabilities,” Stavros said. “Whether it’s longer from an earlier start or a later season depends on the region.”
Williams said outdated policies currently pit long-term benefits of wildfires against short-term impacts – things like nuisance smoke and the protection of private property.
Under current policies, he said, very large wildfires will become a certain outcome. They may also place increased pressure on incident managers.
“If you’re not running air tankers, then you’re not trying hard enough, no matter if they won’t be effective,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that fuel buildup went unaddressed for years before the incident.”
Not fully understanding the complexity of the issue, he added, the public and grandstanding lawmakers have become unforgiving when initial attack efforts fail.
While those initial attack efforts are successful 98 percent of the time, he said, the consequences of a few escaped fires have become enormous.
“In the aftermath of a wildfire disaster, there’s a predictable wave of investigations, town hall meetings, blue-ribbon panels, governor’s commissions and congressional hearings,” he said. “Fair or not, the fire services are being judged at how they perform at the highest level of threat when protection matters the most.”