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From the epicenter of the West's fires, here's what's needed next

From the epicenter of the West's fires, here's what's needed next
© Getty Images

Last week, the sun was glowing an eerie red over Ashland, Oregon. The mountains were invisible, shrouded by heavy smoke that lingered and choked. I had not ventured out for several days. But at least I still had a house. Thousands have lost their homes and businesses to fires raging throughout the West, and this climate change-driven catastrophe has claimed dozens of lives. I spend much of the year in Washington, D.C., fighting to protect America’s vast network of public lands from industrial destruction, profiteers, and climate change. But coming back to Oregon this summer has been eye-opening, especially the last few weeks.

I wish every member of Congress could see what I’ve been seeing, feel the choke of ash in the throat, eyes red with irritation, and the anguish of neighborhoods and towns that have turned into rubble. It might finally be the wake-up call they need to take a different approach to address wildland fires.

Wildfires in the West have happened for millennia. But climate change has created hotter, drier conditions. It’s simple physics. Human greenhouse gas emissions have warmed the planet. Higher temperatures trap more water in the atmosphere, drying out vegetation and making it more likely to ignite.

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Still, climate change isn’t the only cause. Society has worsened this problem in four other crucial ways:

  • Decades of aggressive fire suppression has unbalanced ecosystems that evolved with fire;
  • Sprawl development in fire-prone areas has increased the risk of human-caused ignitions while putting tens of millions of people in harm’s way;
  • Logging has removed the oldest and most fire-resistant species of trees, and highly flammable tree plantations have replaced many forests;
  • Not enough has been done to ensure homes in the path of wildfires are as safe as possible, and too many roads across our public lands provide vectors for human-caused fires.

So what’s to be done? Scientists have been urging changes for many years. First and foremost, federal and state governments must address the climate emergency at the root level. That means curbing the production of fossil fuels — the primary driver of this crisis — and transitioning to energy sources that are cleaner, safer, and juster. The course we’re on will never change unless we tackle the climate emergency head-on.

Next, we need to rethink how we manage our public forests and admit that we’re not going to log or “thin” (the modern term for logging) our way out of this crisis. Thinning does not change the hot, dry winds that drive high severity fires and make fires spread faster, like those burning in the Pacific Northwest and California.

We should stop offering commercial timber sales. Instead, we need to train more personnel to conduct more prescribed burns and carefully manage wildfire in the backcountry, as forest scientists have long called for. Science, not corporate timber profits, must be the guiding principle.

We must invest in preparing communities to be fire safe. On-the-ground evidence shows us the best way to protect homes and lives is through retrofitting buildings with fire-resistant roofing, ember-proof vents, and pruning vegetation in the defensible space immediately surrounding homes.

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We have a home ignition problem that will not be addressed by logging far away from communities. Congress should pass the Wildfire Defense Act (S. 2882 and H.R. 5091) to provide cost-share grants and require the hardening of homes and structures. And it’s crucial to bury powerlines, create better early-warning systems and mark evacuation routes.

Smarter development is also key. Local governments should stop approving housing developments in highly fire-prone areas, given that most ignitions are human-caused.

Increased community devastation from wildfire in the American West is no more a new normal than increased hurricane damage in the East or increased droughts in the Midwest. All will continue to worsen until the United States stops letting oil, gas, and coal companies call the shots on climate policy.

Like clockwork, each fire season, some lawmakers — with timber industry backing — promise we can log out way out of large fires. We can’t. Logging millions of acres to remove so-called “hazardous fuel” won’t change fire behavior during drought, high winds and climate change. More money spent on logging in the backcountry means less money spent hardening communities and buildings to survive fires.

When I return to D.C. from southern Oregon, I will share my firsthand experiences with lawmakers. Hopefully, this time, there will be the courage to change. 

Randi Spivak is the director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program.