Summer is still more than a month and a half away, but huge wildfires have already consumed landscapes and darkened skies in Arizona, New Mexico and Nebraska. Strong winds blew flames across the terrain around Boulder, Colorado, in December and March.
In Boulder, concerns about wildfires used to be concentrated in August and late summer, when lightning can ignite wood. “Now the focus is every month,” said John Potter, deputy director of the city’s Mountain Parks and Open Spaces department.
As deadly wildfires become a terrifying fixture in many Americans’ lives, more of the country is embracing an age-old tool to limit devastation: careful, controlled burns that remove vegetation and help keep fires from spreading. forests become catastrophes. But in many places, the changing climate is making intentional burning much more difficult to carry out.
The US Forest Service used prescribed fire on a record 1.8 million acres of federal land last year, and the agency aims to treat an additional 50 million acres with fire and mechanical brush thinning over the next decade. . President Biden’s infrastructure law allocates $5 billion to reduce combustible flora and fight wildfires in other ways. California, Oregon and other states are exploring legal changes to encourage more burning.
However, with man-made global warming heating up and drying out much of the country, wildfire seasons are getting longer, narrowing the windows for safely burning controlled fires. Changing rain and wind patterns add to the complications for the burners. In many states, efforts to treat more land with fire also face bureaucratic obstacles and shortages of funds and personnel.
So far this spring, exceptionally dry and windy conditions have prevented the Boulder Mountain Parks Department from conducting any major burns, Potter said. That raises a lot of concern about the severity of wildfires this summer.
“Fingers crossed,” he said.
Even in humid Florida, changing conditions are forcing land managers to get creative about when to burn, said J. Morgan Varner, director of fire research at the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy in Tallahassee. Heavy rains derailed plans in March, which is typically the best fire season in the state. “We’re dealing with really dynamic weather that makes planning difficult,” said Dr. Varner.
For much of the last century, America’s approach to fires was to put out each and every one of them. A series of devastating fires in 1910 hardened the government’s belief that fire was the enemy. Indigenous land management practices were dismissed as pseudoscience; intentional burning was considered to be the behavior of arsonists and forest miscreants.
But the raging hells of recent years have drawn attention to the need for a better way. Scientists now believe that the prolonged focus on fire suppression left the nation’s forests overcrowded and overgrown, one reason current wildfires are so destructive.
Between 2005 and 2019, major fires in the West and Great Plains burned nearly four times as much total area each year and occurred almost twice as often, compared to the last two decades of the 20th century, a new study found. Since 1979, nearly every part of the world where wildfires are a problem has experienced more extreme heat and dryness, other recent research has shown.
In California, the winter rainy season is getting shorter but more intense, scientists say. This gives grass and weeds more time to dry out and become flammable in the fall, while also providing them with plenty of water to grow in the following spring, a double whammy for wildfire risk.
“I don’t think people realize that we’re actually at a point where, for some of these fires, we can’t put them out,” said Lenya N. Quinn-Davidson, a fire advisor at the University of Washington Cooperative Extension. California and director. of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. “We really need to think in different ways about how we do things.”
Changes are underway in some states. California passed a law last year that relieves land managers of firefighting costs in the unlikely event that a properly planned prescribed burn goes awry. Oregon is looking to do something similar. The California legislature is considering creating a $20 million fund that would compensate homeowners for losses caused by prescribed fires.
Oregon in 2019 changed its air quality rules to allow more prescribed fires to burn near towns and communities. Potter said the Boulder Mountain Parks Department was exploring whether it needed to work with Colorado officials to re-examine air quality restrictions. The trade-off, of course, could be more smoke choking residents’ lungs.
“Sometimes there’s still that misunderstanding that a little bit of smoke right now can save us from a lot of smoke later,” said Jessica E. Halofsky, director of the Forest Service’s Northwest Climate Center in Olympia, Washington.
Only a small portion of prescribed fires get out of control and cause injury or damage to homes. But when they do, they can leave a lasting mistrust behind.
In Bastrop County, Texas, strong gusts turned a January prescribed burn into a fire that took nearly a week to contain. An independent investigation later found that while conditions that day technically met standards for a safe burn, the state had not had enough personnel on site or an excavator for contingencies.
The incident sparked memories of a wildfire that swept through the same area in 2011, destroying 1,600 homes and killing several people.
“The people who are still here from 2011, they are always nervous,” said Bastrop County resident Roxanne Hernandez. After the 2011 fire, Ms. Hernandez completed a prescribed fire training program and began burning her 53-acre ranch. But for other residents, she said, “it’s about going back to Smokey the Bear: ‘Turn it off!’ And that’s not the answer.”
Trained prescribed fire crews and managers are in short supply in many places, foresters say. Many of the same people are also called upon to help put out wildfires.
“As wildfire seasons get longer, those people are gone longer,” said Dan Porter, director of the California forestry program at The Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit. “When they come back, we can say, ‘Hey, would you like to go do a prescribed burn?’ Well, they’ve been cutting lines for four months and breathing smoke for four months. They need to go see their family and take a break.”
Ms. Quinn-Davidson of the University of California Cooperative Extension has organized courses as part of a new program to train more people to lead prescribed burning in their communities. But with so many of California’s catastrophic wildfires burning on federal land, only bigger policy changes and large-scale prescribed fire projects can stop further damage to the landscape overall, she said.
Last summer, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore restricted the use of prescribed burns on agency lands to ensure resources were available to fight wildfires. He also ordered a pause in allowing wildfires to burn if they provided ecological benefits and did not threaten homes or infrastructure.
The disruption was temporary, but it was enough to make some environmentalists fear officials’ recent defense of the fire could still be reversed. If the goal is to return the earth to an older ecological state, one in which frequent natural fires kept forests vibrant and resilient, then the scale of the task is staggering.
California aims to use prescribed fire on 300,000 acres of land annually by 2025. Much more of the state burned each year in centuries past, before intensive modern settlements transformed the landscape, the scientists estimated. Smoke and haze littered the skies for much of the summer and fall.
It may not be practical or desirable to return to that world in its entirety. Still, as more human activity spreads into what was once a desert, societies will have to learn to accept fire in one form or another, said Heath D. Starns, a fire researcher at Texas A&M University and President of the Prescribed Burn Alliance of Texas.
“It’s a process that really needs to happen, ecologically,” said Dr. Starns. “And our best option is to live with that, but determine when, where and under what conditions fires occur.”