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Retrofitting Our Vision Of Fire In The Face Of Climate Change And Drought

Southwest Fire Consortium

This week President Obama introduced legislation that would change the way money is used to manage wildfires. It makes more funds available for fire prevention by shifting the source of cash needed to fight raging fires from the Department of Agriculture to the the disaster relief fund.  It's a move that land managers have been calling for for some time.

New Mexico is on track this year to have the 3rd driest winter in the 151 years that records have been kept by the federal government.  Over the past few years mega-fires have swept across the landscape burning hundreds of thousands of acres and threatening communities and watersheds.

Scientists and land managers gathered this week at the Fostering Resilience in Southwestern Ecosystems problem-solving workshop put on by the Association of Fire Ecology and the Southwest Fire Science Consortium to discuss how communities can become more resilient and resistant to wildfire in light of climate change and ongoing drought across the West.

Dan Faulk, a professor at the University of Arizona who has been studying fire for decades, said one of the problems is our concept of fire.

"Most members of the public are thinking 'how can we get rid of fire?'" Faulk said. "The problem is compounded by this failure to understand that there is not enough fire on the landscape, especially prescribed fire and large landscape low-severity fires."

Panelists agreed that the question is no longer if we get more fire.  It's when.  And how do we work with it. 

"If we look around the West," Faulk said, "we would say that fire is going to show up whether we like it or not.  The real choice is, can we see a pathway to more resilient ecosystems in the face of not only fire, but drought, insects and a lot of other stresses?"

Plus, over the past few decades nearly 30 percent of home construction has taken place in areas that were once wild land, unoccupied by humans.  These zones are at high risk for wildfires.  Leaders of the workshop said that the explosion of building in what's called the wild urban interface seems to be making the problem of fire management much worse. Many communities have reached a tipping point that requires people to retrofit their vision and view of what living in these areas means. 

Recently, New Mexico was selected as one of eight hubs around the world to be part of a Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network to test ideas to make communities more resilient in responding to catastrophic fires. 

Alexander Evans with Forest Guild-Santa Fe said that being part of a larger network of people living in high-hazard places can help communities identify what has been learned by others and develop action plans. 

"In an ideal world we would have communities that could accept fire and wouldn't need any fire fighting resources," Evans explained. "The fire could essentially burn through. Processes would be in place in advance to ensure that flammable materials are not there. People knew to have their prescriptions and pets and personal items ready to go and they left in time so that they would not be in harms way."

Evans said it would make a tremendous difference if every community in New Mexico embraced the Firewise Principles, such as clearing brush in a 100 foot radius around homes located on the edges of developed areas and making sure that non-flammable roofing and siding materials are used. 

Credit National Park Service
Homeowners and land managers in the Wild Urban Interface are responsible for clearing areas around homes, making them fireproof rather than fire prone. Here the area is being treated with a prescribed burn to remove dry fuels from the landscape.

In addition, preventing large catastrophic wildfires with prescribed burns and other land treatments would be less expensive. Dan Faulk says it's an approach that fiscal conservatives should love, because the cost of fighting just one massive fire can top tens of millions of dollars per week and is often fairly ineffective.

"We all know when you send out air tankers and type one crews, you are spending money at an extraordinary rate. And in a wild land setting under extreme wildfire, what puts out those fires is usually a change in the fuels or a change in the weather," Faulk explained.

Scientists and land managers agree that making communities and wild lands more resilient and resistant to mega-fires is going to require a shift on the social, political and ecological level.