A Changing Fire Environment: 40 Years of Forest Service Experience

Tom Tidwell, Chief
International Association of Wildland Fire Conference
Raleigh, NC
— February 15, 2013

It’s a pleasure to be here. Conferences like this are opportunities for exchanging views and information on one of the most compelling environmental issues of our time: the challenges associated with fuel buildups and worsening wildfire and fire season severity. I’ll give my perspective based on my experience with the Forest Service.

Legacy of Fire Control

The Forest Service was founded in 1905 because the American people wanted us to protect the benefits they got from the national forests. The National Forest System was not set up for individual profit but for the benefit of society as a whole. Our management has therefore always been for the benefit of society as a whole—for what people want and need from forests.

One thing people have always wanted is fire protection. In 1910, the Big Blowup in the Northern Rockies swept huge fires across more than a million acres within hours. Whole towns burned, and scores of firefighters died. The nation was shocked, and it became a rallying point for us.

In the decades that followed, the Forest Service worked with the states to form a cooperative fire organization, setting the stage for today’s wildland fire community. In the 1920s and 30s, we still had huge fire seasons; in the Dustbowl period, for example, more than 50 million acres burned in some years.

By the 1930s, however, the Forest Service could draw on thousands of firefighters through the Civilian Conservation Corps. In the decades that followed, our nation poured resources into our fire organization, and both prevention and suppression steadily improved.

As a result, we’ve gotten very good at fire protection. As you known, one way fire season severity is measured is the number of acres burned per year. From the 1970s through the 1990s, barely over 3 million acres burned on average each year. That’s way down from 50 million acres, and it was mainly because we got so good at excluding fire from the landscape.

Rising Fire Season Severity

But something surprising happened. In the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, the average annual acres burned either went down or stayed about the same. But in the 2000s, fires suddenly seemed to explode all over the West.

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 that’s not because our fire organization has suddenly become less effective. The Forest Service still suppresses up to 98 percent of the fires we fight during initial attack. It’s because fuel and weather conditions have changed; the record low fuel moistures, the record 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.

Extreme fire behavior has become the new norm. In 2000, for example, we had the Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico, with fire spreading across 40,000 acres in 7 days. We thought that was extreme, but the Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico in 2011 spread across 40,000 acres in just 12 hours!

Since 2000, at least 10 states have had record-breaking fires. Two states, Arizona and New Mexico, had their records broken twice—and the Whitewater–Baldy Fire on the Gila National Forest last year broke the New Mexico record yet again. 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.

The growing wildland/urban interface has made fire protection much more complex. From 2000 to 2030, substantial increases in housing density are expected on 57 million acres of forest land nationwide. That’s an area larger than North and South Carolina combined. More than 70,000 communities are now at risk from wildfire, and less than 15,000 have a community wildfire protection plan or the equivalent. From 2000 to 2008, almost 28,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings burned in wildfires.

Changing Landscapes

So what happened? What changed in the 20 or 30 years to create this huge turn-around in fire size and fire season severity?

Simply put: our landscapes have changed, especially in the West. When we look at old photos from a century ago and compare them to landscapes today, some changes really stand out.

One change is that open forests have become much more closed. Another change is that woody vegetation such as pinyon/juniper has encroached on many grasslands. And a third change is that glaciers are in full-scale retreat, a sign that the climate is changing. Other factors also play a role, such as land use changes and the spread of invasive species.

The bottom line is this: our landscapes have become cluttered with more fuel at a time when climate change is altering the timing and extent of precipitation, snowpack, and runoff. Warming temperatures are also loading more energy into the atmosphere, consistent with higher levels of droughts and floods, storms and blizzards, and other weather events. And because more people, homes, and communities are on the landscape, the risk from severe weather and wildfire events is rising.

Climate is the most important natural shaper of ecosystems. It affects the location and composition of forests and the frequency and extent of wildfires. Many parts of the country are seeing larger fires and more acreage burned as a result of the earlier snowmelt and drier soils associated with a warming climate.

Climate change has also led to milder winter temperatures in the western United States, allowing bark beetles to reproduce faster and spread to new areas. Entire landscapes are being attacked by bark beetles, from low-elevation pinyon pine in Arizona to high-elevation whitebark pine in Montana.

The areas at risk are enormous. More than 42 million acres have been affected by the western bark beetle epidemic, an area the size of Wisconsin. A Forest Service study in 2002 found that the area at risk from uncharacteristically severe wildfires in all ownerships nationwide was 397 million acres. That’s an area almost four times the size of California.

None of this is sustainable. All of it reduces our ability to manage the forests and grasslands for the things Americans want and need: clean air and water; protection from erosion and floods; habitat for native wildlife; opportunities for outdoor recreation; and more.

Rising fire severity means rising firefighting costs. Yet our budgets have remained relatively flat. Take the Forest Service budget, for example. In constant 2012 dollars, adjusted for inflation, the Forest Service’s discretionary budget was about $4.8 billion in 2002. It was about $4.8 billion in 2008. And it was about $4.8 billion in 2012, the last time Congress enacted a budget for us.

No matter what our funding level, we have to afford fire protection to the best of our ability, so a growing proportion of our funds are going into fire. In 1991, for example, fire-related activities accounted for about 13 percent of our budget—about one-eighth. Last year, fire-related activities accounted for about 40 percent of our budget. That means less money for everything else people want—watershed protection, habitat protection, outdoor recreation, and so on.

Our Response

As I said, none of this is sustainable. So what are we doing about it?

In 2010, working with the Department of the Interior, the Forest Service 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 capable of withstanding stresses and disturbances, including those associated with climate change.
  2. An equally important goal is to create fire-adapted human communities by treating fuels in the wildland/urban interface and by helping people adopt planning and building practices that make homes and communities safer from wildfire.
  3. Our third goal is to make safe, effective, risk-based wildfire management decisions. Many of America’s landscapes evolved with fire; sooner or later, they will burn. Fire protection requires an appropriate response to wildfire—not only suppression, but also, where safe and beneficial, the use of fire for management purposes. 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 share from a holistic, well-integrated perspective. This is a truly cohesive effort that reflects the best thinking of all the partners.  The Cohesive Strategy is now moving into the implementation phase.

The key is ecological restoration—restoring the ability of forest and grassland ecosystems to resist climate-related stresses, recover from climate-related disturbances, and continue to deliver the values and benefits that Americans want and need. By restoration, we mean restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthier, more resistant, more resilient ecosystems, even if they are not exactly the same systems as before.

Restoration is predicated on working with partners across shared landscapes to reach long-term goals for healthy, resilient ecosystems, and that’s what our cohesive strategy is all about. We have launched a series of related programs and initiatives, all designed to work through partnerships, leveraging partner funds. They include the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program; the Landscape-Scale Restoration Program; and various other public/private partnerships.

Taken together, these programs and initiatives encompass a broad-scale approach to accelerating restoration through partnerships across shared landscapes. We’ve been at this for a while, and we’ve already had some success. For example, our hazardous fuels treatments from  2001 to 2011 reached about 27.6 million acres of degraded landscapes. That’s an area larger than Virginia. In 2011 alone, we completed more than 3.7 million acres of restoration treatments of all kinds across forests, grasslands, and watersheds.

Looking to the Future

As we look to the future, the Quadrennial Fire Review is coming up. At 4-year intervals, the Forest Service joins an array of partners in conducting a unique future exercise. We perform a forward-looking assessment of wildland fire response and management on a landscape scale. This lets us identify the key challenges ahead and alternative ways of addressing. This in turn allows us to assess and increase our capacity to meet those challenges.

So 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 work together to address them. We’re all in this together, and if we can join together and pool our resources across landscapes, then I think we can be more effective in restoring America’s forests, grasslands, and watersheds, for the sake of generations to come.