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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

U.S. Forest Service ecologist says mega wildfires require more than suppression, urging 3-step solution

A spotter plane at right guides a larger plane dropping fire retardant while fighting a wildfire near Twisp, Wash., in August 2015. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Hotter, dryer summers have led to increased megafires and Paul Hessburg, a research landscape ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said he fears our wildfire seasons will get much worse.

A megafire is a fire that grows larger than 100,000 acres, and Washington and the western United States in general have seen a lot of them. The 2014 and 2015 fire seasons both set records, Hessburg said, speaking Tuesday at an “Era of Megafires” event hosted by the Spokane Regional Health District in Spokane Community College Lair Auditorium.

“Some areas lost upwards of 3,000 structures in one fire,” he said. “These effects won’t just continue, they’ll continue to worsen.”

Decades of effective fire suppression have led to forests densely packed with trees with the ground littered with dead trees and other fuels. Some experts believe that the amount of acres burned will double or triple from current levels in the next 30 years, Hessburg said.

“Even conservative forecasts area enough to get our attention,” he said. “Warmer temperatures and larger fires are going to be the reality for the foreseeable future.”

The forests used to manage themselves with small, frequent fires, Hessburg said. Historical photos show forests that were patchy, with open areas that helped stop the spread of fires that were largely left alone. “Most fires were pretty small by today’s standards,” he said.

But that all changed with the Big Burn in 1910 that scorched more than 3 million acres from Eastern Washington to Montana, destroying entire towns and killing 87 people.

“Because of the Big Burn, wildfire became public enemy number one,” he said.

Fire suppression efforts were good enough to significantly drive down the number of acres burned per year for nearly 50 years. But that number has been rising again, particularly in recent years.

The combination of fire suppression and changing climate have led to the increasing number of megafires. “Many of the forests are ticking time bombs, ready to burn big and hot,” he said. “And we’re building houses right in the middle of this.”

But there are changes that can be made, Hessburg said, though some may not be popular. “Frankly, these conditions scare the daylights out of me,” he said. “We have the tools and know-how to do it.”

The first step of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy calls for creating a wildfire resistant landscape. One way to do that is to use prescribed burning to burn debris on the forest floor to reduce the fuel load.

“It’s an extremely useful tool,” he said. “We used to do lots more of it.”

But prescribed burning can be unpopular, and the smoke it creates is regulated. “It’s considered an avoidable nuisance because we light the match,” he said. “Wildfire smoke gets a pass.”

The second step is mechanical thinning. Logging practices are a lot different than they used to be when loggers took only the biggest trees, but some people are adamantly against logging, Hessburg said.

“Twentieth Century logging made people gun shy,” he said.

The third step is managing wildfire by herding it into areas where fire can be beneficial. Firefighters used this technique in the Buck Creek Fire in 2016 to steer a wildfire away from homes and into the forest, Hessburg said.

People must also prepare their homes and communities for wildfire by paying attention to defensible space, landscaping, roofing materials and deck materials. Effective firefighting is also crucial, but it’s not enough by itself, he said.

“No matter how well we fight fires, some fires are just uncontrollable,” he said. “Fire suppression by itself is an incomplete solution.”

Whatever is to be done needs to be done soon. “The scale of the need is really large and time is short,” Hessburg said. “It’s likely we don’t have 20 years left.”

People must be willing to support tools like thinning and prescribed burns if we want to make a difference, Hessburg said.

“It’s a social problem,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us to solve it. We’re going to need all the tools. We don’t need to grieve over burned homes. It’s up to us.”