The wildfires scorching the West this summer have sparked debate among scientists, environmentalists, small government advocates and even firefighters themselves.
Is man-made climate change at the root, as was implied by President Obama when he said “firefighters are braving longer wildfire seasons” because of it.
Conservative land-use advocates argue that the federal government has neglected proper management of forests and wildlands, producing “tinderbox conditions.” They say environmental pushes to restrict road-building in some forests inhibits the clearing of dead stands of trees and makes it harder to reach wildfires.
Environmentalists argue that harvesting affects biodiversity by favoring certain trees over others and that building roads causes erosion and fragments the landscape.
Now there’s a political argument that sequestration is to blame for the lack of adequate fire prevention. It reportedly cut about 7.5 percent from the Forest Service’s budget, nearly half of which is spend on fighting wildfires. But experts have been reluctant to link the tragic loss of 19 elite firefighters in Arizona to budget cuts. Rather they cite the shifting winds that can put team fighting a wildfire at risk.
Firefighters acknowledge that technology to fight forest and brush fires has changed little in decades while drought, human encroachment on western lands and higher temperatures have increased the challenges.
Bill Stewart, co-director of the University of California Center for Fire Research and Outreach, said with a little more “innovation out there we might have learned something in the past 10 years.
“There’s very little research and development in firefighting. It’s a very conservative area, and historically it’s been vastly underfunded.”
All agree the problem is getting worse. Testifying before a Senate committee, Thomas Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said the wildfire season is lasting two months longer and burns twice as much as 40 years ago. While Tidwell blamed climate change for hotter, drier conditions, he also pointed out that 42 percent of the forests need better “fuels and forest-health treatment.”