Feature

Wildfires in all seasons?

Deb Schweizer
USDA Forest Service, Fire Aviation and Management
June 26th, 2019 at 1:30PM
Fire technician on a prescribed fire

In recent decades the number, severity and overall size of wildfires has increased across much of the U.S. In fact, the 2018 wildfire season in California recorded the largest fire in acres burned, most destructive fire in property loss and deadliest fires in the state’s history.

But for many USDA Forest Service employees, fire season is something they remember from the start of their careers, when they quickly learned there were five seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall and fire season. However, wildfire is year-round for much of the United States and the Forest Service is shifting to the concept of a fire year.

Wildfire season has become longer based on conditions that allow fires to start and to burn—winter snows are melting earlier and rain is coming later in the fall. What was once a four-month fire season now lasts six to eight months. For example, fires in recent years have burned well outside of the typical fire season throughout California, Arizona, New Mexico, Tennessee and New Jersey. Fires in the winter months are becoming part of the norm.

Other factors contributing to longer fire seasons include extended drought, tree mortality from pine beetles and invasive species such as cheat grass that allow fire to ignite easily and spread rapidly. Added to all this were policies that encouraged aggressive fire suppression for more than a century. These policies had the effect of allowing fuels to accumulate, leading fires to grow in size and intensity.

View of a mountain with smoke and fire.

All these conditions are making wildfires harder to control and allowing forests to hold fire longer. For years, agencies relied on seasonal firefighters for summer months, but now that wildfires are burning into the winter, they need to reevaluate their hiring plans. Wildland firefighting agencies also need to evaluate the way they conduct training for year-round fire, as well as how to handle the inevitable workforce fatigue.

Forest Service crews plan for wildfire year-round. They know that it isn’t a matter of if there will be a fire, but when. They proactively pursue fuel reduction treatments like mechanical thinning and prescribed fires. When conditions are favorable, options such as these reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Even in a year like this, which has been unusually wet and cool, fire managers see opportunities to prepare for wildfires. The Forest Service is committed to an all- lands response and works with state and local agencies in mutual aid and to reduce risk.

Residents who live in fire-prone areas must also plan and live in fire adapted communities. Defensible space, structure hardening and family plans for a possible evacuation, including pets, should be part of living in the wildland-urban interface. Nearly 90% of wildfires are human-caused, so preventing wildfire is important.

Now that we must plan for a fire year, we all have roles to play. What are you doing to help?