Over the course of 17 days, starting November 8 and ending on November 25, the Camp Fire has killed 88 people, burned down 14,000 homes, left 153,000 acres burnt, and wiped the town of Paradise, California off the map. 203 people still remain unaccounted for as of November 26. Fatalities may continue to rise as search teams scour through the wreckage of destroyed homes looking for remains of victims.
In a Tweet on November 10, President Trump commented on the fires saying, “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor” Trump also threatened to withhold aid for the victims of the recent fires.
In response to the Tweets, the California Professional Firefighters President, Brian Rice wrote, “the president’s message… is ill-informed, ill-timed and demeaning to those who are suffering.”
This year alone California has seen over 7,500 wildfires, which have burned roughly 1.8 million acres. Experts widely agree that the increase in the severity of wildfires in the country can be attributed to three main factors: climate change, fuel build up, and urban development in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI. The effects of these factors are felt all over the country.
The WUI is the zone where undeveloped land meets human development, and it has been growing exponentially over the last few decades. More than 46 million American homes, or around 40 percent of the housing units in the country, are located in fire-prone areas within the WUI. As the WUI grows, the risk of severe damage to life and property can be expected to increase.
As the severity and destructiveness of the fires are increasing, so are the costs of fighting them. This year, the government spent a total of $3.1 billion as of November 5, on suppressing wildfires across the country. Due to the rising costs, the Forest Service and other fire agencies have to divert funds away from programs designed to reduce the risk and impact of fires just to put current ones out. This is commonly known as ‘fire borrowing’.
The Forest Service is able to suppress or manage roughly 98% of the fires, but only a small fraction of the fires consume upwards of 30% of the agency’s annual budget. In 2015, 52% of the FS budget was spent on fires, and if the way fires are funded doesn’t change, they predict that 67% of the agency’s budget will be spent on fires by 2025. On top of yearly budget cuts, many are unsure of how long the FS can withstand this current trend.
Dana Skelly, the Regional Fuels Manager for Oregon and Washington, was working on a contract for mechanical thinning around Canyon Creek, an identified WUI area. They had put that contract on hold for a couple of years because they were concerned that they might need those funds for something else. But in June 2015, the contract was finally put up for bid.
“The bids finally came in on August 11. The houses in that area were hit with fire and the whole treatment area burned up on August 14. Because of the fire, the project was no longer needed and then the money was fire borrowed shortly after that,” she explained. By the time the Canyon Creek Complex was controlled, it had burned a total of 110,000 acres, destroyed 43 homes, and had cost $31 million to suppress, not including the untold millions in property damage.
The cost of suppressing and managing fires within the expanding WUI are also increasing. Skelly says, “it continues to get expensive in part because we continue to have homes build further and further into our forests, [which] makes it that much more challenging and expensive to manage the fires when they happen.”
“One of the things we need to do is treat wildfires as all other natural disasters. And to a certain level there have to be additional appropriations by Congress to respond to them like they’re an emergency,” says Skelly. “Public perception also has to change, and people have to come to an understanding that we can’t put out all the fires. It’s not even possible.”
Mark Skinner, a local botanist for the USFS, and a former resource advisor for the Eagle Creek Fire, says that “fires are increasing both in frequency and in intensity of the fires that we get,” and the costs, he said, “have been increasing steadily over the past few decades.”
A key part of keeping the risk of fires low is to reduce the buildup of fuels in the forests and especially within areas that are at high risk for starts. Skinner says, “when the danger of prescribed fire is too high… the whole idea of maintaining any kind of resilient forest will become much more difficult.”
Maintaining forests that are fire-ready has become ever more challenging. “We simply don’t have the resources to do the work we do.”
The current way wildfires are funded each year may not be effective against the changing wildfire landscape. “We’ve boxed ourselves in… we can’t let these fires burn because when they burn out of control—they burn structures and kill people,” Skinner said.
“If we don’t start changing the way we think about fire in the landscape and instead spend more money getting ready for fires,” said Skinner, “we’re just going to see these problems perpetuate indefinitely.”
Credit: California National Guard Flickr
Soldiers from California Army National Guard search through debris in Paradise, CA.