By Jay North
Those who have been following the news for the past several months will recall the horrific wildfires that occurred in the Western states this past summer—primarily beginning in the Northwest, but causing ramifications as far south as the Bay Area in California.
Wildfires in California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, as well as the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, were most disastrously affected, leading to thousands of people being evacuated from their homes and businesses.
Close to 2,000 professional firefighters combated the blaze in two affected areas in north-central Washington, but little hope could be restored to families who watched their neighborhoods burned quite literally to the ground.
It may come as a surprise to hear that those states considerably further away, seemingly out of the line of fire, were also facing consequences during this summer’s so-called “fire season,” mostly due to diminished air quality.
Satellite photos released by NASA show a frightening picture. The smoky haze is clear in these images taken above California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana.
Air quality stations in the mountainous regions of the northwestern states have also been extensively tracking these readings, and established that wildfire smoke has affected the quality of the air as far south as Tijuana, Mexico.
So why are we not having more success containing these natural disasters? Dry, hot weather resulting from climate change has long been stated as the primary reason for the increase in fires during the summer months, and the affects of these unpredictable, unseasonable heat waves cannot be overstated. The dry atmosphere has provided the ideal conditions for lightning strikes, which prompted several fires.
But there are other issues at play here that the media is conveniently ignoring in favor of more palatable information. The truth is, the U.S. Department of Forestry is in over their heads, and they know it.
It should not be surprising to learn that these wildfires are claiming lives, but the actual number of fatalities is higher than many Americans might assume. The death toll currently stands at fifteen firefighters, all of whom died while battling the flames in dangerous areas over the past two fire seasons alone. Other firefighters have been hospitalized due to non-fatal injuries, and at least one civilian has died this year in northern California, near Monterey County.
According to a statement released by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during the week of September 20, a record $243 million was spent during that week alone to battle aggressive, fast-spreading wildfires.
Over eight million acres in total have been destroyed by fire. Homes in California, Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho have been reduced to ash, causing devastating consequences to those who call those communities home. Firefighters from Australia were recruited to come to the U.S., as they have done numerous times over the past fifteen years when fire season became too great for American experts alone to handle.
Vilsack shared some more disquieting news. For the past six out of ten fire seasons, the U.S. Forest Service quickly found themselves running low on funds. (The budget set in place by Congress for firefighting is fairly small.) In order to continue fighting the fires, they quietly borrowed funds from organizations usually focused, ironically, on restoring forests and setting in place safeguards against fires.
Even though President Obama declared the state of Washington to be in a state of emergency this past August, many other scorched communities felt as though their health and safety was not being prioritized. Residents of several Napa County communities in California took matters into their own hands after being forced to evacuate to a fairground in Calistoga, California.
The residents stated that, due to the Red Cross’ dismal effort to reach their cities in time, they felt inclined to start their own grassroots relief corps to serve their own community. The northern California Valley Fire forced hundreds into evacuation, but the Red Cross’ slow response time indicated a startling lack of concern.
Awareness quickly spread across social media, urging locals to stop by the Napa County Fairgrounds to provide assistance, since the Red Cross had failed to provide even the most basic necessities.
Supporters of the Red Cross have claimed that the relief corps prioritizes building safe shelters, and sometimes that takes longer than is ideal. They also urge critics to keep in mind that the Red Cross responds to a vast array of natural disasters worldwide, and that they have very specific guidelines set in place in order to safely maintain evacuation shelters for extended periods of time.
But for northern California locals who witnessed their homes burned within minutes, the realization that their safe haven did not have blankets and toothpaste available was a distressing affirmation of their worst fears. Sometimes, the professionals will not be there to assist you, and when they fail to show up on time, human survival instinct kicks in.
Small communities of volunteers–motivated by compassion for their friends, family, and neighbors—often make a very large impact in the wake of traumatic events, and the hundreds of families herded into the Napa County Fairgrounds evacuation shelter are no exception.
Even the Red Cross itself is not trying to deny this harsh truth. Cynthia Shaw, who works as the regional communications director for the Red Cross of California Northwest, admits that local volunteers made up the majority of the shelter.
During the first few hours of the fire on September 12, Shaw said that only two paid Red Cross staff members were on site at the shelter. The shelter was otherwise being maintained, on a 24/7 basis, by a group of dedicated volunteers.
It is not especially comforting to learn that organizations like the Red Cross, who employ staff who are trained to deal with large-scale domestic and international disasters, are not always capable of providing immediate assistance, nor are they always able to distribute materials effectively. The shelter in Calistoga, for example, was seemingly ignored in favor of another in the nearby city of Kelseyville—and both were quickly filled to capacity.
For those who reside in upper rural areas, warnings do not always come soon enough. Residents of isolated areas such as Cobb Mountain in northern California are suggesting that they were not properly prepared for evacuation in the first place.
Government agencies typically contact residents via email or text message using a service called Nixle, but certain Cobb Mountain locals said that their warnings arrived hours late, after the inferno had already driven them out of their homes.
With a 2014 census indicating that the western states experienced the greatest population growth second only to those in the south, and the population of California alone being expected to grow to 50 million by 2050, many people are left wondering if the risk is too great to make their homes in these natural, idyllic mountainous regions of the country. Those who have called this part of the country home for many years are faced with the reality that one sweeping wildfire could destroy everything they hold sacred.
So what, exactly, is being done? According to XMRFire, an emergency services consultation company that operates in the western states, it is much more costly to fight a fire that has already started spreading than to set preventative measures in place beforehand.
There will never be enough personnel, water, equipment, and aircrafts to completely defeat the fires. What is possible is effectively strategizing and inspecting the danger zones so that necessary precautions can be taken.
XMFire provides comprehensive training for foresters to utilize cutting-edge technology such as GIS analysis, cause-origin investigations, and spatial fire behavior models. They also employ aerial and drone photographers to capture images before and after fires, and then map the area.
Threats, they say, can be minimized, if not completely suppressed, by investing time into educating foresters on prevention. In the long run, this could save a significant amount of money in damage. Potentially, lives could also be saved.
XMFire operates out of San Anselmo, California, but their services are widespread. They currently have numerous wildfire prevention projects set in place, and educate firefighters in departments throughout Ross Valley, Marin County, Lake Valley, and more. They are also associated with Urban Forestry Associates, Inc., a company of arborists and ecologists that specialize in forest management, tree risk assessment, and arboreal disease diagnosis.
Correctly identifying diseased and rotting trees could very easily be the key to preventing many wildfires in the west. Pathogens can quickly cause the health of trees to decline, causing the wood to rot and pine beetles to nest in them.
Other common pathogens are fungi and viruses, as well as the benign oak gall wasp pathogen, but the beetles, experts say, are causing the biggest problem. Back in 2013, Joseph Romm, a journalist for The Energy Collective, discussed the correlation between insect infestations and wildfires:
“…the mountain pine beetle, has already killed 70,000 square miles of trees—area the size of Washington state. As winters become milder, weather becomes drier and higher elevations become warmer, bark beetles are able to thrive and extend their ranges northward. An increase in some species of bark beetle can actually increase the risk of forest fires in areas affected by the beetle — the study notes an outbreak of the mountain pine bark beetle, which attacks and kills live trees, created a “perfect storm” in 2006 in Washington, where affected lodgepole pines burned “with exceptionally high intensity.”
However, a study conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder indicated that forests with large amounts of beetle infestations were not more likely to burn. Researchers first selected three particularly disastrous years for wildfires in the west (2006, 2007, and 2012), and then examined specific areas of land that were destroyed by fire during those times.
The study was extensive and thorough. Researchers used ground, air, and satellite data to produce clear images of the landscape. The lead researcher on this study, Sarah Hart, stated that:
“The bottom line is that forests infested by the mountain pine beetle are not more likely to burn at a regional scale. We found that alterations in the forest infested by the mountain beetle are not as important in fires as overriding drivers like climate and topography.”
In spite of this, it is still important to note that mountain pine beetle outbreaks have made a significant impact on the natural landscape throughout the U.S.—even as far north as Alaska, Hart said. Trees have suffered a higher mortality rate due to pine beetle infestations caused by unusually warm, dry temperatures throughout the west. These small insects have destroyed 24,700 square miles of forests across the western states.
In Colorado, where logging has become common, environmentalists are not convinced that wildfires pose as great a threat as the U.S. Forest Service would have them believe. They have a growing concern: has wildfire prevention gone too far?
The state of Colorado, where wildfires are inevitable, has long been heralded as a region of immense natural beauty, and for centuries, fire has encouraged the forest and its wildlife to thrive. The occasional inferno has helped make room for new growth. In addition, recreational activities and snow sports such as skiing have caused the area to prosper.
But now things appear to be changing. Loggers from the U.S. Forest Service, who believe that forest thinning can prevent wildfire and keep both animals and people safe, tax locals up to $1,200 per acre to essentially destroy the landscape that Colorado residents call home. Many locals are disturbed by the implications of these projects, such as the Ophir Mountain Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project in Frisco, Colorado, which seeks to “protect communities and restore natural processes to forest ecosystems.”
Many of the national forests that are being logged in Colorado are miles away from the nearest residential area, so locals do not understand why such extensive precautions are being taken. Scientific evidence gathered by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research suggests that forest thinning is ineffective at preventing wildfires in areas that are already prone to extreme dryness and drought.
Fires in Colorado’s forested areas have historically been common, and many homeowners have accepted this reality. Locals who oppose logging and clear cutting point to the many federal, regional, state-wide, and regional grants available to Colorado residents wishing to “fireproof” their homes with the appropriate treatment.
Fire resistant homes really do seem to make a difference. In 2014, a wildfire just north of San Diego, California, destroyed some homes—but left many others relatively unscathed. The homes left standing shared some commonalities: they did not have flammable brush anywhere nearby, their trees were not trimmed, and they had placed small screens over their vents and other openings.
It appears that those homeowners who do not overlook small details and take the necessary steps to protect their homes are the most successful. Something as seemingly insignificant as an uncovered attic vent or pine needles in the rain gutters can be the difference between a house and a pile of ash.
It may not be possible to construct an entirely fireproof building, but when such small steps have been proven to protect homes, it does make one question whether excessive logging is necessary.
Jay North, author, environmentalist, social activist and organic gardener can be reached at OneGlobePress.com or professionalwriterjaynorth.com