The federal government needs a new wildfire strategy, particularly in the American West, and several members of Congress are looking in the right direction with bills to create a new Climate Conservation Corps (CCC). The proposed CCC is modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps that worked effectively on soil conservation, water conservation, and recreation projects from 1933 to 1942. The new CCC, drawing in part on funding from the recent $1 trillion infrastructure bill, could provide similarly effective work on public lands.

Wildfire has featured prominently in the news this summer. The Dixie Fire in northern California has burned about 915,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,200 structures. The National Interagency Fire Center estimates that the fire won’t be contained until October 30. The Bootleg Fire, which is the second largest in Oregon history, burned over 400,000 acres. The Caldor Fire has burned over 215,000 acres and forced residents of South Lake Tahoe to evacuate. So far this year, about 43,000 wildfires have burned approximately 5 million acres, which is approaching the size of New Jersey. Fire crews are stretched thin, hundreds of homes and businesses have been destroyed, and federal spending on fire suppression is skyrocketing. Things are so bad this year, thanks to severe drought conditions in the West, that the U.S. Forest Service bowed to public pressure and adopted a more aggressive fire suppression strategy.

As bad as this might sound, this year is slightly below the 10-year average in terms of acres burned. Indeed, several of the last ten years saw more than 7 million acres burned by this time. And according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, the temperature, precipitation, and wind patterns that promote large wildfires are likely to become far more common.

The problem, of course, is not fire itself. Much of the American landscape evolved with fire, and fire plays an essential ecological role in maintaining forest and grassland health. Federal agencies have learned over the last century that blanket fire suppression hurts fire-adapted ecosystems and merely increases future fire risk. 

The new federal strategy, then, should include fire suppression, but it should include investment in two other priorities. First, it should focus on reducing the average size and intensity of public land wildfires, which have increased substantially in the last thirty years, particularly in the American West. Large and intense wildfires go beyond the positive ecological work that sustains healthy forests and grasslands, and they are more likely to put life and property at risk. Second, it should work to reduce risks at the wildland/urban interface. Wildfire has become more costly and deadly in part because of rapid human development in fire-prone areas and inadequate fire mitigation in those areas. 

Federal agencies are already working on these priorities, but they lack adequate resources. A new Climate Conservation Corps could step into this gap. To be clear, the new corps should not focus on fire suppression. Federal agencies already spend, on average, more than $2 billion a year on fire suppression, often drawing resources away from other projects that could reduce future fire risk. The new corps should give federal agencies new capacities.

First, the new corps should expand prescribed fire (or controlled burn) programs on public lands. This is where the agencies light fires intentionally when weather conditions and fuel conditions will produce the desired fire intensity and remain within predetermined boundaries. Extreme fires are increasing in part because fuel has built up in public forests and grasslands and climate change is leading to higher fire risk. Prescribed fire is the most effective and inexpensive tool for reducing fuel, and it accomplishes other important goals, such as improving wildlife forage.

Second, the new corps should work on mechanical fuel removal. This work, particularly in ecological sensitive areas, is enormously labor intensive, and it is generally not achieved by commercial logging.

Third, the new corps should expand reforestation on certain areas of public lands, in some cases planting vegetation that is better adapted to the changing climate conditions. This will reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and simultaneously increase carbon sequestration.  

Fourth, while the new corps should focus on public lands, it could do contract work and outreach to communities located on or near federal land areas. In this context, the corps would take a more aggressive approach to fuel reduction so that homes and businesses aren’t surrounded by combustible material.

The federal government has an opportunity that it shouldn’t miss. Several large fires and the new climate projections are providing a sense of urgency, and Congress has already appropriated new funds for wildfire mitigation. Congress and the Biden administration should act quickly and create a new Climate Conservation Corps that will focus on wildfire mitigation and climate resilience on public lands.   

James R. Skillen is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Calvin University and director of the Calvin University Ecosystem Preserve and Native Gardens.

Published on Sep 20, 2021