A Sensible Wildfire Fighting Policy Requires Putting NAWAPA on the Table
August 19, 2012 • 8:35PM

This year's wild fire season has already substantially burned more acreage in the United States than the average for the past ten years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, in Boise, Idaho. According to the NIFC's latest report, issued Saturday morning, more than 6.6 million acres have been burned so far, this year, by 44,392 fires, compared to the ten-year average of 5.2 million acres and 52,983 fires.

The National Interagency Fire Center is at National Preparedness level 4, its second highest level of alert, which means: Three or more Geographic Areas are experiencing incidents requiring Type 1 and 2 Incident Management Teams; competition exists for resources between Geographic Areas; and, nationally, 60% of Type 1 and 2 Incident Management Teams and crews are committed. It's not just the U.S. that's burning, either. The NIFC also reports that more than 4.4 million acres have burned in Canada, so far, this year, with 27 active fires burning 85,090 acres, yesterday.

The National Park Service's daily report for Aug. 17 showed 31 incident management teams assigned to fires and 52 uncontained large fires burning, covering almost 92,000 acres, most of which are in the Western states of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. The very limited large air tanker fleet available to the U.S. Forest Service, about 11-13 aircraft capable of dropping up to 2,000 gallons of retardant, is being augmented by six Air National Guard C-130s that can drop up to 3,000 gallons at a time. As we have reported before, ten years ago, the large air tanker fleet consisted of 44 aircraft, but safety concerns due to age meant most have been grounded, and the Forest Service has been very slow about replacing them.

While most of the fires have been in remote areas of national forests far from populated areas, unlike the fires that ravaged Oklahoma a few weeks ago, a number of small towns have been evacuated in California and Washington state. One fire in Washington, about 75 miles east of Seattle, destroyed 48 residential properties and 15 other structures. Late yesterday, firefighters were reporting some progress towards containment of that fire, however. In San Diego County, evacuation orders were lifted for 400 people threatened by the Vallecito Lightning Complex fires, that have burned 35.5 square miles of brush, according to CalFire. Meanwhile residents of two small towns in Idaho's Sawtooth National Forest, about 50 miles east of Boise, are being told to evacuate. That fire has been burning for two weeks, and grew 15 miles overnight on Aug. 17-18. Fire crews are set up to defend 366 residential structures in that area.

The vast size and frequency of fires this year is raising many questions about fire agencies handling of them, the resources needed to deal with the threat, and management of the forests in general. This year's fires have stretched firefighting resources very thin, raising questions about budgeting. The Forest Service has been criticized for letting some fires burn until they got out of control, spurring the service to now decide, as a temporary policy, to fight fires as soon as they're spotted, but only because firefighting costs this year will exceed the $948 million allocated to the USFS for fire suppression by about half a billion dollars.

Letting some fires burn in remote areas might have made sense in earlier years when snowmelt and rain were both plentiful, but conditions are so dry in the West, this year, that a small, lightning-caused fire can rapidly turn into a conflagration threatening populated areas and requiring hundreds of firefighters and millions of dollars to suppress. Addressing this reality requires putting NAWAPA on the table as a new policy that will, among other things, restore the hydrological cycle in the West.