Aug 30, 2015

Western fires off the charts

Bloomberg - In Washington state, fire covers nearly 500 square miles, and smoke is in the air as far east as Chicago. On Aug. 19, Washington Governor Jay Inslee asked for a federal disaster declaration, which he got two days later. There are so many blazes all across the Western U.S. that there aren't enough firefighters to fight them. The National Guard has been called up, as have active-duty soldiers trained in 24 hours for the fire line. Canada has sent firefighters to help. So have Australia and New Zealand, and still there aren't enough. An unprecedented 32,000 men and women are struggling to control the flames, yet it's possible to walk for miles over burning ridges and down smoke-choked drainages without seeing a single firefighter. "Fire activity is off the charts," says Shawna Legarza, the Forest Service's fire director for California. As bad as Washington state is, California has been burning since early July, and there are 42 large fires active now. By mid-August, fires have consumed 7.2 million acres nationwide, mostly in Alaska.

Accounting for insurance costs, damages to businesses and infrastructure, and the flash floods and mudslides caused by denuded slopes, this year's fires will likely cost taxpayers $25 billion—and that's if a whole town or city doesn't burn, which is a distinct possibility. If that happens, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the costs could double or triple: One hundred forty million Americans live in fire-prone regions, and $237 billion in property sits in those high-risk areas.

The Forest Service, the country's largest wildland firefighting agency, has spent $800 million trying to control the flames this year, and it's only August. As such, 2015 is on track to become the 15th year in a row the agency has laid out roughly $1 billion on firefighting alone. Expenses in some areas are equal to or greater than the value of the threatened property—$200,000 to $400,000 per home, according to Bozeman (Mont.)-based Headwaters Economics. Yet the Forest Service doesn't have much choice: It can't just let communities burn. So the service and its partner agencies keep putting out the flames, even though years of study have shown that doing so only leads to even hotter, more devastating fires later.