The fire in Yarnell Hill, Arizona is now contained and the nation is mourning the loss of 19 of its most elite firefighters. As we wait for an ongoing investigation to conclude, we are faced with the reality that the Yarnell Hill wildfire is just the latest in a string of catastrophic fires that are becoming bigger, more frequent and more deadly.
Before you start blaming climate change, take a closer look at the history of forest management practices in the United States. The uptick in wildfires corresponds to some major policy shifts in Washington, in particular, a decline in the once prominent role of the commercial timber industry.
In the 1930s, wildfires consumed an astounding 38 million acres of land annually. Shortly after a tragic fire in Los Angeles—one of the worst in US history, along with the Yarnell Hill fire—we started taking firefighting more seriously. As a result of improved fire suppression techniques, wildfires declined by 90% over the next few decades. By 1995, wildfires were consuming only about 3 million acres a year.
The year 1995 marked a turning point in the federal government’s longstanding fire suppression policy. Under pressure from environmental groups who argued that we were over-suppressing wildfires, federal agencies began to allow some small fires to run their course.
The idea behind the over-suppression theory was that wildfires play an important role in the ecosystem. All of the underbrush, fallen branches, and densely packed trees need to be periodically cleared out in order for new trees to spring up. Occasional, low-intensity wildfires fulfill this role.
Yet the rate of wildfire destruction following this change of policy jumped from 3 million to 6.5 million acres annually on average. Last year, it was all the way up to 9 million acres. The let-it-burn strategy appears to have backfired.
The problem with this approach is that we can’t completely abandon fire suppression. People live in close proximity to the environment so even low-intensity fires often need to be suppressed to keep them from spreading into someone’s backyard. Rather than letting fires burn, humans need to do the thinning work of natural wildfires by hand. In forestry management parlance, this process is known as ‘mechanical thinning,’ or ‘hazardous fuels reduction.’
As an Arizona native, I thought the need for hazardous fuels reduction was common knowledge. When I was a Boy Scout, I even did some of this work myself near the very spot in the Prescott National Forest where the Yarnell Hill
fire broke out. I’ve since learned that while mechanical thinning is common practice near private property and on commercial land, on federal lands this is not necessarily the case.
And like everything in Washington, the reason is at once simple and complex. (Hint: it’s money.) The Forestry Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the myriad other federal agencies that manage our forests don’t have the money—or the Boy Scouts—to effectively do all forest-clearing work of wildfires even as they must suppress most fires before they threaten nearby communities. With a limited budget, fire suppression wins over long-term forest management every time.
This is a relatively recent phenomenon. Mechanical thinning on federal lands used to be done by the commercial timber industry which would lease tracts of federal land. Harvesting timber has a similar effect, ecologically to low-intensity wildfires. It thins out densely packed forests and removes debris from the forest floor. The chart on the right compares wildfires on federally managed lands to those that have been commercially thinned. The difference is dramatic.
Commercial timber harvest has the added benefits of generating royalty payments, creating jobs, and boosting economic growth. If properly regulated, it is a sustainable practice.
While it used to be an integral part of forest management strategies, commercial timber harvest has been hampered by environmental interests. Current harvest rates have declined 87% since 1987 and are now far below levels that the national forests could sustain.
Regulation and the risk of environmental litigation make commercial timber harvest on federal lands prohibitively expensive and time consuming. The Forestry Service itself spends $350 million of its limited budget on complying with environmental regulations and conducting NEPA reviews. Environmental groups add to this cost through litigation. One large scale thinning project in Montana required 1,400 pages of documentation and a year of analysis and was still blocked by a court injunction citing a bogus future precedent argument. The Lolo National Forest in Montana is at a greater risk of catastrophic wildfire as a result, and the local timber harvesting economy is rapidly deteriorating.
The pressure from environmental groups to stop suppressing wildfires thus coincided with the pressure to stop commercial timber harvesting. This has shifted the burden of mechanical thinning to the federal agencies themselves. It is unfeasible and unaffordable for the federal government to manage the 655 million acres of land that it owns. Without commercial timber harvesting, wildfires will continue to get worse.