Beyond Fear and Flames – Wildfire Season 2009

Jul 8, 2009

WEAVERVILLE, CA – Northern California is again entering a long wildfire season with high heat and drought conditions expected well into fall. But a panel of experts today said some communities and firefighting policies are changing the way wildfires are fought – still keeping communities safe as a top priority while also preserving forests.

Orleans resident Will Harling, executive director of both the Mid Klamath Watershed Council and the Orleans/Somes Bar Fire Safe Council, said his community has taken the first critical steps to reduce wildfire danger by removing brush and other wildfire fuels, and by using some controlled burning on the western edge of the Klamath National Forest.

Property owners within the Klamath Forest have completed this work on 1,100 acres, using chainsaws and other removal methods for 800 acres, and controlled burning on the remaining 300 acres. But fire prevention is a long process, Harling added. “We are probably just doing 10 percent of what needs to be done in terms of fuel reduction and controlled burning,” he said.

Armed with a teaching video, Harling is showing landowners and tribal communities how fire has been part of the natural cycle of the forest dating back hundreds of years. He also encourages landowners to thin fuels around their properties, whether relying on goats and horses that graze on the grasses, or using mechanized options like tractors and mowers.

Another panelist Anthony Westerling, Ph.D., climate scientist at UC-Merced and its Sierra Nevada Research Institute, described how the Western U.S. is experiencing warmer and drier weather, which has extended the fire season by about two months.

“On the back end of the fire season we can expect it to go longer, as it gets drier. It takes more moisture at the end of the fire season to wet fuels and end the fire danger,” Westerling said. “We can also expect the fire season to start earlier, because of the earlier snow melt and greater evaporation.”

The state will face some severe wildfire risks in the years ahead, Westerling added. “California can expect to see a 100 to 300 percent increase in wildfires in a large part of northern California forests by the end of this century.”

With blazes burning in the Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers National Forests, updated fire policies and firefighting strategies can be used now to save homes, lives and taxpayer dollars, said Rich Fairbanks, a California-based forestry expert with The Wilderness Society.

A shift in federal policies should lead to more firefighting agencies allowing wildfires to burn safely to eliminate the underbrush that lead to dangerously large wildfires, he said. If a fire is a safe distance away from communities it’s a method that restores healthy forests and saves money. Brush removal can cost $300 to $1,500 per acre, Fairbanks said, yet on one recent 9,000-acre blaze, a managed fire did the same job for just $149 an acre.

Fairbanks, a 32-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service (including 20 years working on fire crews), said new federal policies are also emphasizing controlled burning, the practice of allowing firefighter crews to selectively set and manage fires to clear out underbrush. It’s a method that also saves money, and keeps air cleaner because the burns are scheduled when weather conditions cause most of the smoke to vent upwards, and not spread out into communities.

Congress is also poised to help combat wildfires, Fairbanks said. The Senate should act next by passing its version of the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act. This bill would provide a stand-alone source of funding for fire suppression so that the Forest Service doesn’t have to keep taking money away from other programs and services each year to cover suppression. The next hearing on the bill is set for later this month. 

An MP3 recording of the teleconference is available.

TWS also has a Wildfires 2009 media kit available, with information, images, audio and video.