Biden Administration Will Try To Prevent ​Wildfires, No Forest-Raking Required
Apple Fire outside Beaumont, California, July 31, 2020. Photo: Brody Hessin on Twitter, Creative Commons license 4.0

Following another year of apocalyptic scenes of wildfires, the Biden administration announced this week a 10-year, $50 billion plan to reduce wildfire risk on 50 million acres of federal land, especially in areas near vulnerable communities. The first five years of funding will come from the already-passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but the full amount will need further appropriations from Congress. If you're in the mood for reading a government report, here's the 25-page plan, with the lighthearted title "Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A New Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests." (PDF document.)

We'll let the New York Times do the summarizing:

The federal Agriculture Department said in a statement that it would take measures to reduce the danger of catastrophic fires in dozens of spots in 11 Western states by thinning overgrown trees and using controlled burns to get rid of dead vegetation. The plan [...] would quadruple the government’s land treatment efforts.

“It’s the time to act,” Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, said at a news briefing on Tuesday, adding that the government needed to “change the trajectory of our wildfires.”

The plan would be carries out by the US Forest Service, which we always have to remind ourselves is part of the Agriculture Department, no matter how much our brain keeps insisting it should be part of the Interior (which does have the National Park Service). The goal is to help make forests more resilient and "fire-adaptive" in the face of climate change, which has led not only to droughts, but also to warmer air that dries out brush and makes it easier for fires to burn out of control.

As the Times points out, the number of fires every year in the western US has remained fairly constant over the last decade, but the size and intensity of fires have become much worse. In addition to climate change, past forest management practices have also contributed to the increased danger of huge wildfire. For over a century, the goal was to extinguish every forest fire, which allowed dead vegetation to accumulate. All that stuff that would in the past have been burned in small fires has instead just sat and dried out, making fires more likely to become massive.

In a very stupid way, Donald Trump was partially close to right about the role of built-up vegetation, except he completely ignored the role of climate change in making the situation worse, and thought the solution was as simple as raking the forests. As the Times 'splains,

the Biden administration has decided to use thinning and intentional burning to restore forests to conditions closer to those that existed in the past, when fire was a regular part of the forest life cycle and naturally removed some trees and dead underbrush.

The plan is aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic fires in 11 states: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, and South Dakota.

The plan so far is only partly funded, to the tune of $3 billion, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last fall. The Times reports that beyond that,

A spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department said the department would spend $655 million every year on forest management for the first five years of the plan. That money would be added to $262 million that the U.S. Forest Service had already allocated to the task for this year. [...]

To carry out the plan on 50 million acres of land would cost around $50 billion, the spokeswoman said. The government spent about $1.9 billion per year on wildfire suppression from 2016 to 2020.

If the Forest Service can actually get the appropriations to pull off the ambitious program of thinning and controlled burns — which is far from certain — that could make fire seasons far more manageable. Seems like a good idea, since wildfires are now a threat not just for the summer and fall months, but year-round, as the record December 30 fires that wiped out suburbs in Colorado demonstrated. The forest management efforts would be supplemented, the Agriculture Department says, with "investments in fire-adapted communities and work to address post-fire risks, recovery and reforestation."

And while $50 billion over 10 years sounds like a lot, it's probably worth noting that the costs of wildfires keep getting higher and higher. Western wildfires in 2020 alone led to insurers paying out between $7 billion and $13 billion in damages, and that's just on homes, land, and other stuff that was actually insured. When you factor in all the indirect costs of wildfires, like people being dislocated and the long-term costs of health problems caused by the air pollution from massive fires, estimates start running into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

In the Agriculture Department's press release on the plan, Vilsack emphasized the need for action to cut the risks of extreme wildfires, and to start doing it as soon as possible, since the damage from the largest wildfires has outpaced "the scale of efforts to protect homes, communities and natural resources," and that's only going to keep getting worse with climate change. He emphasized the need for cooperation on the prevention effort between federal agencies, other jurisdictions, and private landowners.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore (yes, "chief" is his actual title) added that the job is doable, but that we gotta actually do it:

“We already have the tools, the knowledge and the partnerships in place to begin this work in many of our national forests and grasslands, and now we have funding that will allow us to build on the research and the lessons learned to address this wildfire crisis facing many of our communities,” said Moore.

Vilsack also said at Tuesday's press conference that the goal here isn't to eliminate wildfires, but to prevent them from being as catastrophic as the fires of the last decade.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), who also spoke at the presser, said the emphasis on prevention and risk reduction is especially needed because of climate change, because "We can’t keep doing the same thing under worse conditions and expect a better result."

And somewhere in Florida, Donald Trump mused about having an underling bring him a rake so he could go on TV and say 'Even Wonkette says I was right!" But then he wanted a Big Mac and a Diet Coke and forgot all about it.

[NYT / USDA / US Forest Service / Photo: Brody Hessin on Twitter, Creative Commons License 4.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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