Firefighters spray water on a building set aflame by a wildfire on 14 May 2014, in Carlsbad, California. Photo: U.S. News & World Report

By Alan Neuhauser
5 November 2014

(U.S. News & World Report) – Smokey Bear may not know the half of it.

As one of the longest and costliest wildfire seasons in U.S. history comes to a close, a new study asserts the way we’ve been attempting to prevent forest fires is “simply wrong.”

“We don’t fight hurricanes, we don’t fight earthquakes, but we do fire. It has other ways of being dealt with, and we’ve lost sight of that,” says Max Moritz, fire research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the study's lead author.

Wildfires killed 34 firefighters last year and scorched more than 4.1 million acres of private, state and federal land, according the U.S. Forest Service and the National Interagency Fire Center. Putting out those blazes cost over $1.7 billion, and that doesn’t include investments in fire prevention – a combined price tag that’s swelled from 14 percent of the Forest Service’s budget in 1999 to nearly half last year.

Federal funding, meanwhile, has failed to keep pace: As blazes have grown larger and the fire season ever longer, federal firefighting budgets have run dry, forcing the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, which oversee wildfire suppression, to dip into other accounts – most notably prevention.

“Over the past decade, wildfires have increased in size and intensity, and the fire season now extends 60-80 days longer than historic averages,” Western Governors Association executive director Jim Ogsbury says. “Exacerbated by drought and invasive species, wildfires have resulted in costs exceeding $1 billion every year since 2000.”

He called the situation “a vicious cycle of high fire risk and elevated emergency expenditure.”

Climate change is largely to blame: more erratic weather, extreme storms and warming temperatures have led to the droughts and bug infestations that have transformed acres of trees and brush into dry tinder, according to the study, published this week in the journal Nature.

“Over my 45 years in the business, summers are hotter, fires are bigger,” says Tom Harbour, fire director of the National Interagency Fire Center. [more]

As Wildfires Worsen, Calls for Change in Tactics



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