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Speech

Learning to Live with Fire

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Large Fire Conference
Missoula, MT — May 19, 2014

It’s a pleasure to be here today. Large fires are a timely topic, and I appreciate the opportunity to discuss their implications. I’d like to start by thanking the Association for Fire Ecology and the International Association of Wildland Fire for hosting this event, with support from the Joint Fire Science Program.

Worsening Fire Seasons

As you know, the United States has come a long way with respect to wildland fire management. A century ago, after the Big Blowup of 1910, we went to war against wildfires. We thought all wildfires were bad, and our policy in federal firefighting was to prevent them—or, if we couldn’t prevent them, then to put them out by 10 o’clock next morning.

We didn’t fully understand at the time that most forest types in the United States are naturally adapted to fire. Most of our forest types need fire for rejuvenation or to maintain critical ecological functions. The classic example is ponderosa pine, but other forest types are fire-adapted as well, including mixed conifer, lodgepole pine, oak‒hickory, longleaf pine, and so on. Indeed, the exceptions are rare.

So our policy of fire exclusion proved to be disastrous. Starved of fire, many forests have become unnaturally dense and overgrown. Fuels are naturally self-regulating; they accumulate as vegetation grows, sequestering carbon. Then they burn when weather and moisture conditions are right, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere. The forest, so to speak, breathes in and out again in terms of fuels and carbon storage.

But our firefighting became so good that we managed to break the cycle for a time. From the 1970s to the 1990s, only 3.2 million acres burned on average each year. It looked like our policy of fire exclusion was working.

We were wrong. As fire retreated across the landscape, fuels that normally would have burned continued to accumulate in a process that proved to be unsustainable. The forest, so to speak, kept breathing in, and sooner or later it had to breathe out again—and when it did, the fuels blew up.

In 2000, for the first time since the 1950s, more than 7 million acres burned in a single year. Two years later, more than 7 million acres burned again. In 2004 and 2005, more than 8 million acres burned; in 2006, 2007, and 2012, it was more than 9 million. Some experts predict that fire seasons could return to levels not seen since the 1940s, reaching 12 to 15 million acres.

And fires have been getting larger. Since 2000, at least 10 states have had record-breaking fires. Two states, Arizona and New Mexico, had their records broken twice—and a fire in 2012 broke New Mexico’s record for a third time in just 12 years.

Extreme fire behavior has become the new norm. Remember the Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico in 2000? That fire spread across 40,000 acres in just 7 days, and I remember thinking at the time how extreme that was. But that was nothing: in 2011, the Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico spread across the same area in just 12 hours!

To make matters worse, homes and communities have been shooting up in the wildland/urban interface. By 2060, our national population is expected to grow to somewhere between 400 and 500 million, and by 2030 we expect to see housing density grow on about 57 million acres, an area the size of Utah. The WUI, deprived of fire, has becoming increasingly prone to burning, making fire protection extremely complex. Almost 70,000 communities are now at risk from wildfire, and less than 15,000 have a community wildfire protection plan or the like.

Add to this volatile mix the impacts of climate change, and you have the recipe for a perfect storm. As you know, climate change affects the timing, amount, and type of precipitation. Scientists have tied climate change to the drier conditions, longer fire seasons, and greater fire severity we are seeing across the West. We have seen prolonged drought across our western and southern tiers of states—although I’m not so sure you can call it drought anymore if we’re going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.

The outlook for this year’s fire season is fairly typical of recent years. Areas that could have large fire activity in the weeks to come include Alaska, California, the Southwest, Nevada, and Oregon. The good news is that recent precipitation has lowered the fire potential for parts of the Northeast and Southeast as well as for the Northern Rockies. Still, we are bracing for another large fire season.

Fortunately, our fire organization is still as effective as ever. The Forest Service still suppresses up to 98 percent of the fires we fight during initial attack. But fuel and weather conditions have changed; the low fuel moistures, the low relative humidity, the low or no snowpacks … all this means that the 2 percent of our fires that escape initial attack tend to get much bigger much faster. Once these megafires start making their dramatic runs, they are impossible to stop, and firefighters are largely limited to point protection around homes and communities. As the Yarnell Fire showed last year, the danger to even the most experienced firefighters can be horrendous, and we absolutely have to manage that risk.

So that, as I see it, is the situation on the ground. The question is, how do we respond?

Cohesive Strategy

We have made a start, and I think we are on the right course. Working with the Department of the Interior, the Forest Service has engaged the entire wildland fire community in developing a joint long-term National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. We brought together federal, tribal, state, and local governments and nongovernmental organizations to develop a shared national approach—a national blueprint for building synergies in wildland fire management. Our strategy has three main goals:

  1. The first goal is to restore fire-adapted natural communities. The key is ecological restoration—restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems. Our policy is to restore forests and grasslands that are capable of withstanding stresses and disturbances, including those associated with climate change.
  2. An equally important goal is to create fire-adapted human communities. We need to treat fuels in the WUI and help the people who live there adopt planning and building practices that make homes and communities safer from wildfire. I cannot stress enough how important this is: people who live in the WUI need to take responsibility for their own properties. We need to learn to live with fire, and making communities firesafe is a big part of it.
  3. Our third goal is to make safe, effective, risk-based fire management decisions. Most of America’s landscapes evolved with fire; sooner or later, they will burn. Fire protection therefore requires an appropriate response to wildfire. We are absolutely committed to suppressing fire wherever needed, and we will devote every resource to that end. But we are also committed to using fire for management purposes where it is safe and beneficial. Again, we need to learn to live with fire.

Our joint strategy is about breaking down stovepipes and coming together to address wildland fire challenges across the landscapes we all share. Our strategy is about addressing the fire-related challenges we face from a holistic, well-integrated perspective. This is a truly cohesive effort that reflects the best thinking of all of our partners.

Ecological Restoration

Note that each goal in our Cohesive Strategy is aimed at making our ecosystems, our communities, and our fire management decisions better adapted to wildfire. That corresponds to our broader land management goals at the Forest Service.

The answer to the ecological degradation and corresponding fuel buildups we are seeing is ecological restoration. Using prescribed fire and other vegetation treatments, we can restore overgrown forests and other degraded ecosystems. By restoration, we mean restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthier, more resistant, more resilient ecosystems. We are striving to sustain and restore ecosystems that can deliver all the services that Americans want and need, including resistance to catastrophic fire.

The Forest Service is taking a series of steps to accelerate restoration. A prime example is our Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. We have identified 23 large-scale long-term projects across the country, and we have dedicated funding to restore over 50,000 acres through each project, on average. That includes four projects right here in the Northern Rockies—the Southwestern Crown of the Continent Project and the Selway–Middle Fork Clearwater Project, both begun in 2010; and the Weiser–Little Salmon Headwaters Project as well as the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative, both begun in 2012.

So the good news is this: People get it. People from all over the country, representing all different interests … people get the connection between declining forest health and things they value, like water, wildlife, outdoor recreation … and, yes, fire protection. People get the connection between ecological degradation and the need for restoration treatments, and they are willing to invest their precious time and hard-earned money in restoration treatments. Restoration has the power to bring everyone together behind some shared goals.

Off-Budget Fire Funding

Before closing, I want to address our soaring fire suppression costs. In 2013, the Forest Service spent $1.3 billion on fire suppression alone, an enormous increase over what it once was, even accounting for inflation. Fire funding has gone from 13 percent of our budget in the early 1990s to 51 percent today.

That is simply unsustainable. To cover fire suppression costs, we have had to draw funds from other operations on the order of $500 million annually, and that has undercut our ability to fulfill our mission. If we can’t pay to restore ecosystems and reduce fuels in the WUI because we have to cover our firefighting costs, then we can’t implement our Cohesive Strategy. Instead, we are setting ourselves up for even more megafires and higher firefighting costs to come.

A few years ago, Congress created the FLAME Fund to solve the problem. But FLAME didn’t provide the additional funding we need to cover soaring suppression costs in the age of megafires. So we’re still robbing Peter to pay Paul.

We need a whole new approach. Megafires are not business as usual, so we should stop treating them as such. Instead, we should start treating them as the natural disasters they are—well, not entirely natural, but you get my drift.

So the President’s Budget for fiscal year 2015 contained a new cap adjustment for fire suppression modeled on the disaster relief cap adjustment for FEMA in the Budget Control Act. Basically, we want to use emergency funding to fight megafires, just like FEMA uses emergency funding for disaster recovery. Congress is considering corresponding legislation.

Under the cap adjustment, the Forest Service will request 70 percent of the 10-year average suppression cost as part of our regular discretionary budget to cover normal fires. On top of that, we will request separate funding under the cap adjustment to cover extreme fire seasons or extreme fire events. That will free up funds for critical resource stewardship programs, including ecological restoration and fuels reduction in the WUI.

On the Right Track

At the beginning of my remarks, I said we’ve come a long way, and I think you’ll agree that we have. Where once we went to war against wildfire, now we are learning to live with fire. We are finally getting the tools and resources we need to implement our Cohesive Strategy, and I think we are on the right track.

As we look to the future, I would ask you, in the work you do, to think about the way our landscapes are changing. Think about the causes, the effects, and the ways we can better work together to implement our Cohesive Strategy, for the benefit of generations to come.

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