The Worst Wildfire Season in a Century

The western United States is on the leading edge of the worst wildfire season in a century. By any measure, a pandemic.

Jim Petersen -
5 MINUTE READ
The Worst Wildfire Season in a Century

The western United States is on the leading edge of the worst wildfire season in a century. Worst in acres lost. Worst in frequency. Worst in severity. Worst in air quality. Worst in every way imaginable. By any measure, a pandemic.

The cause – a failure to control tree growth in the West’s national forests – is finally beginning to dawn on the political class in our nation’s capital. At least three comprehensive proposals aimed at increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration work are winnowing their way through the House and Senate.

The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, our nation’s four largest newspapers, now feature on-the-scene reports and photographs daily. Their combined readership tops four million. Hundreds of smaller newspapers are also reporting from the scene. So too are the 24-7 satellite news channels.

God only knows how many people are following our western wildfire pandemic on Facebook, Google and other social media, but it surely runs into the millions. When we started reporting from the scene in 1986, we were largely alone in our descriptions of what was then called the “forest health problem.” We first saw it in eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains west of LaGrande.

The focus then – and to some extent now – was on salvage logging: the removal of burnt timber that often fuels reburns. “Not one black stick will be removed because logging fire-killed timber is like mugging a burn victim” became the war cry of the anti-forestry cabal following the Silver Fire. It scorched about 95,000 acres in southern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest in 1987. Subsequent burns and reburns totaling some 700,000 acres taught important lessons that were largely ignored in the public arena.

In today’s world, 95,000 acres is chump change. Several wildfires in the news this week have already burned more than 400,000 - each. Last summer, the August Complex burned more than one million acres across six northern California counties. It took three months to contain it.

The last million-plus acre fire in the United States was the Great 1910 Fire. It leveled more than three million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana. There is another 1910 Fire in our future. We are in wildfire freefall, yet the worst of the worst environmental groups continue to insist that these killing fires should be allowed to burn themselves out. “It’s natural,” they say.

There is nothing “natural” about these devastating fires. They are a direct result of 30 years of congressional refusal to recognize and confront the chain reaction causes this tragedy: a jaw-dropping increase in tree growth in forests that were no longer managed for growth, a corresponding increase in the presence of insects and disease and nature’s inevitable response: wildfire.

Now a new Forest Service Chief has stepped into the breech. He is Randy Moore, the former Region 5 Regional Forester. We have yet to visit with him but hope to do so as soon as he is settled in Washington, D.C. Those who know him personally or professionally say he brings solid leadership skills and a wealth of experience with fire to the job. You can view his opening remarks here and form your own opinion of his mettle.

We have no doubt that he has already been deluged with advice and counsel from individuals and groups that favor or oppose forest restoration. In our view, the forest restoration train has left the station. The only question remaining is how far it will run. Chief Moore is its engineer but the public owns the railroad and Congress is its designated representative.

We were signers on one letter Mr. Moore will find on his desk. It is the only such letter we have endorsed in the 36 years we have been publishing Evergreen Magazine. We signed out of our respect for the other 12 signers – all of them Forest Service retirees and two of them Evergreen Foundation board members.

Among the signers is Michael Rains, a 50-year Pennsylvania retiree who wrote the foreword to our wildfire book, First, Put Out the Fire. Michael has worked weekly – sometimes daily - on his public outreach for more than four years. You can read the latest in his long-running Call to Action here. It is the most detailed problem-solution proposal we’ve seen. More than 4,000 have signed his petition urging congressional action.

Others are engaged, including the National Forest Service Retirees. Their landmark Workforce Capacity study details the shortage of skill sets on the forestry side of the Forest Service’s operation.

Currently, the Forest Service needs to hire about 13,000 engineers, foresters, technicians and ologists to shore up its forestry dikes in what has become more of a fire department than a forest management organization. Finding and training them will take years – and possibly an additional three to five billion dollars annually for possibly five to seven years.

Of the trillions Congress is currently appropriating in the name of “infrastructure” there is surely enough money to help the Forest Service get back to on its feet.

Attrition in the Forest Service began following the federal government’s 1990 decision to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species. Thirty-one years later, spotted owl populations are still in freefall because the research leading to the decision was politically rigged from Day One.

“Saving” old growth, not owls, was the motive. How then to explain the several millions acres of presumed old growth/spotted owl habitat that should have been treated to reduce fire risks that have been lost in increasingly deadly wildfires?

You will find dozens of essays on this website that dig deeply into every aspect of this crisis, including the Forest Service’s embrace of “managed fire,” which is the focal point of the letter we signed. The risks associated with “returning fire to fire depleted landscapes” are too great. It might have worked on a small scale 30 years ago, but it won’t work in today’s diseased and dying national forests.

Homes, communities and lives lie in harm’s way. Thinning and prescribed fire offer the only science-based hope for stuffing the Bad Wildfire Genie back in her bottle. This task will take years. The do-nothing alternative poses unimaginable environmental, economic and health consequences for a nation that loves forests.

Our most recent essay is a booklet showcasing the fire-related risks in Lincoln County, Montana. There are more than 400 counties in the western United States. At least 290 face the same crisis that confronts northwest Montana’s seven counties.

While cruising our website, consider this: The heat generated by these wildfires exceeds 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit – about 10,000 Kilowatt hours per meter. This equals about 19 million Celsius heat units. The average home in the western United States uses about 877 Kilowatts per month. You do the math.

Or consider this: the two hijacked airliners flown into the World Trade Center in 2001 did not cause the two steel towers to collapse. The collapse was caused by the 1,000 degree heat generated by 40,000 gallons of exploding jet fuel. About half the heat generated on 10.7 square feet of fire on any of our godawful western wildfires.