Only we can prevent costly forest fires. So why don't we?

Bad management and climate change have turned our forests into tinderboxes and exhausted firefighting budgets. But we keep on building homes in the woods.
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Last summer's record-breaking Carlton Compplex fire swept through the Eastern, WA town of Pateros.

Bad management and climate change have turned our forests into tinderboxes and exhausted firefighting budgets. But we keep on building homes in the woods.

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on forest fires.

On the internet, you can still watch the flames race down dry eastern Washington hillsides toward wood frame houses and see the charred, gray ruins of what used to be downtown Pateros. A whole lot of (barbecued) chickens came home to roost this year: Last summer's Carleton Complex fire was the largest in state history, eclipsing — though not by much — the 1902 Yacolt Burn, which torched forests in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania counties, farther south, and raised local fears that Mount St. Helens or Mount Rainier was erupting. In the month after lightning ignited the Carleton fire on July 14 (Bastille Day), the blaze burned 256,000-odd acres and destroyed 325 homes. The hundreds of people whose houses and businesses went up in smoke, many of them un- or under-insured, have been told to expect no help from FEMA.

At least 20 other significant fires burned in eastern Washington and Oregon last summer. In California, the state's entire fiscal year firefighting budget has already been spent, with the historically-worst months for wildfires just beginning. In the U.S. as a whole, wildfire ravages some 5 million acres annually, and the cost of those fires has more than quintupled in the past 20 years. "We've kind of gotten used to" big fires, says University of Washington affiliate professor of environmental and forest sciences David Peterson, who leads the fire and environmental research applications team at the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory. "It's the new normal."

What's going on? Imagine you want to build a campfire. You take big logs with thick bark and lay them out carefully so that no two logs are touching. Light a match. And hope the kids don't look forward to toasting marshmallows any time soon. Or try again. Pile up a lot of dry kindling. Then lay a bunch of smaller logs on top of it, making sure the logs are all touching each other. Light another match. And step back. Quickly.

Now assume you've started that second fire on dry grass right up against your home's cedar-shingled walls. You might want to dial 911.

Sure, that's oversimplified, but it has basically happened in a lot of our eastside forests. Thanks to generations of selectively removing big, fire-resistant, commercially-valuable Ponderosa pines — a process known as "high grading" — and suppressing — or discouraging Native Americans from setting — the small fires that would have cleared out saplings and underbrush, we have lots of kindling on the forest floor, lots of small trees crowded together, lots of dead and bug-weakened trees drying in the summer sun. And now, in many places, we also have lots of houses standing among the dessicated pines, right in harm's way.

"The six worst fire seasons since 1960 have occurred since 2000," Headwaters Economics observed in a recent report. "Bigger wildfires are generally the result of two factors." One is that we have basically stockpiled fuel on the forest floor. Now, adds Peterson, "we're sort of catching up for the debt [of unburned fuel] we have to pay."

The second factor is the result of stockpiling carbon in the atmosphere, which has altered the climate. Snow melts off earlier in the year now. That means spring growth, which ultimately becomes summer tinder, happens sooner, and whole landscapes dry out earlier in the year.

We'd better get used to it. "It's getting harder and harder to write this off as a bad year," says Reese Lolley, the Nature Conservancy's Eastern Washington forest projects director and chair of the Washington Prescribed Forest Council. Historically, "we've had a 5-month fire season." But with climate change driving an earlier snowmelt, "we're looking at 7 months." In other words, the fire season expands by 40 percent. It lasts more than half the year. Expect more stuff to burn. Lolley says scientists now forecast that within the next 40 years, the acreage that burns annually will double.

One might assume this prospect would make people think twice before building houses in areas vulnerable to wildfire. By and large, one would be wrong. People keep developing the "Wildland-Urban Interface" (WUI), that zone in which private development is permitted but in which wildfire is increasingly likely. It's much like building in flood plains. People do it. Government saves them from themselves. Therefore, people keep doing it.

The land on which the houses are built is probably subject to local zoning and regulation. But local government probably doesn't bear the full cost of protection. If those houses are anywhere near a national forest, the expense of keeping them from going up in smoke probably won't be purely local.

The presence of houses makes it harder and more expensive both to fight fires and to reduce fuel loads so that big fires are less likely. "The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has noted that structures adjacent to federal lands can significantly alter fire control strategies and raise costs," Headwaters reports. Crews clear extra fire breaks around buildings, and expensive air tankers log extra hours dropping flame retardant. "In a survey of [Forest Service] land managers, some estimated that 50 to 95 percent of firefighting costs were attributable to protection of private property."

"Not surprisingly," Headwaters observes, "wildfire protection costs have risen substantially." In the Clinton era, the federal government's annual tab for federal wildfire protection and suppression averaged less than $1 billion. In the past decade, it has averaged more than $3 billion. State and local governments spend billions more.

The public has already spent plenty in Washington this year. In fact, "state and federal officials are running out of firefighting dollars," Joseph O'Sullivan reported August 9 in The Seattle Times. According to O'Sullivan, "Washington state has already spent $91 million fighting wildfires this summer. ... the state’s wildfire-fighting money for the budget year starting in July likely has already run out."

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The Mills Canyon Fire in the Wenatchee National Forest started in July, 2014. It has consumed 18,065 acres. Credit: US Forest Service

Devoting most of the available resources to protecting houses means there are many fewer resources for safeguarding wild areas. "Federal wildfire suppression policy explicitly states that protecting human lives is the priority," Headwaters explains, "and that protecting private property and natural resources are equal as the second priority." But given the political reality, saving houses is more important than protecting lands and resources. Headwaters cites an example that prompted the federal government (in 1995) to give natural resources the same priority as private property: "... federal fire control efforts on one fire in the State of Washington focused on protecting private property at the cost of thousands of additional acres of timberland burned."

Despite all the money spent, the number of homes destroyed by wildfire keeps rising in a straight line, Peterson says. The losses track the increase in the number of homes. In other words, despite the obvious and well-publicized risks, residential construction in the WUI is still going gangbusters.

And worse may be yet to come. Despite the obvious risks, most of the wildland-urban interface remains open for business. There's room in the woods for plenty more houses, and no law against building them there. "Currently," Headwaters reports, ". . . only about 16 percent of the WUI in the West is now developed, and the remaining 84 percent is available for development." Translation: Local government could let development there more than quadruple.

The federal government has thrown a lot of money at the wildfire problem. But it has aimed much of those dollars at the wrong targets. Half of the Forest Service budget is dedicated to fire management, Peterson explains, but most of that money goes to suppress fires, not to keep big fires from starting in the first place.

Tomorrow: How Eastern Washington'communities are trying to control forest fires - and the ballooning cost of fighting them.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.