In a decade strung with devastating fire seasons, 2015 is shaping up to be one of the most destructive wildfire seasons yet. Nearly 9 million acres have burned this year across the nation. And with drought and climate change, wildfires are only predicted to get worse.

In a commentary in the journal Science, scientists, led by an affiliate of University of California, Davis, describe unique opportunities and suggestions to reform forest fire management to lessen the impacts of inevitable wildfires in future years.

In the US, 98 percent of wildfires are suppressed before reaching 300 acres. Yet the 2 percent that escape containment account for 97 percent of fire-fighting costs and total burned area, they write.

The current funding structure for fire management encourages that imbalance. The authors write that, for individual national forests, “fire suppression is steadfastly financed through dedicated congressional appropriations,” which are supplemented with emergency funding. However, funding for fuels reduction and prescribed burns comes out of a limited budget allotted to each national forest and is often borrowed to cover suppression costs.

helicopter in smoke from wildfire

New plans for the forest

The recently released National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and the US Forest Service’s current efforts to revise national forest plans provide incentives—and distinct opportunities—for change. Most of the 155 national forests will begin writing new plans and holding public forums within the next 10 years.

Further, public resistance to controlled fire management, such as objections to smoke and negative perceptions of forest fires, is starting to change.

This growing public and congressional awareness of the problem is placing additional pressure on state and federal agencies to better manage forests and fire. The authors say this kind of support is needed to enact true change—not just at the policy level but also with actual wildfire response.

“Management reform in the United States has failed, not because of policy, but owing to lack of coordinated pressure sufficient to overcome entrenched agency disincentives to working with fire,” the authors write.

Suggested changes

The paper suggests that change come in the form of more prescribed and managed burns, increased thinning, and less suppression. The authors point to Parks Canada, which divides the landscape into different zones for fire management.

For example, US forest plans could:

  • Use mechanical thinning and suppression near homes;
  • Use prescribed fire and mechanical treatments just outside of the wildland-urban interface;
  • Allow more remote lands to burn as managed wildfires when naturally ignited and use prescribed fires.

This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Kat Kerlin-UC Davis
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