The fires that have swept across Northern California are made even more tragic by the fact that some of the devastation could have been prevented. A multitude of factors – including California’s historic drought, a wet winter, and the interface of wild and urban lands – converged into a perfect storm of 21 fires.
But the fires are also part of a damaging trend: In the past few decades, wildfires have become larger, more frequent and more damaging. In 2017 alone, U.S. wildfires burned over 8.7 million acres – an area larger than New Jersey and Connecticut combined. We’re experiencing one of the worst fire seasons on record and it’s likely to get worse.
How did we get here? Denser forests are one piece of the puzzle. Over the past 50 years, our insistence on suppressing fires wherever they occur has also cut down on the benefits of naturally occurring wildfires, which maintain forest health by reducing tree density and excessive underbrush. This change in natural fire systems alters the ecosystem, making now-overgrown areas more susceptible to flames.
At the same time, climate change is pushing up global temperatures and decreasing precipitation in some areas. These overgrown, dry, hot forests have become perfect kindling for wildfires, which can now spread faster, grow larger and burn hotter than ever before.
Beyond their aesthetic value, forests filter our water and prevent soil erosion. They are where 65 percent of drinking water in the West originates.
When forests burn, the first major rainfall carries soot and ash into streams, lakes and rivers. Long after the fires have been put out, these damaged forests won’t be able to protect water quality as they once did. The loss will also be felt in a diminished tourism industry and the health effects and costs that often result when at-risk communities deal with burns and smoke inhalation. Wildfires’ impacts can last for generations.
But there are things we can do now to make future fires smaller and less intense. Among them is proactive restoration. Forests that have become unnaturally dense due to decades of fire suppression must be restored to a healthy state, especially when these forests are near populated areas.
This is especially important in light of California’s recent six-year drought, which deprived ecosystems of water and left behind more than 100 million dead trees that serve as fuel for the fire.
Knowing what to do isn’t enough. There are steps we can take now to improve the way we manage forests and fires in the United States.
Right now, the federal government budgets for fire fighting at the expense of restoration. The U.S. Forest Service – the agency tasked with protecting the nation’s forests – spends so much time and money fighting fires that it cannot pay for the critical restoration needed to help prevent future catastrophic fires.
These fires cost taxpayers $1 billion a year and will eat up more than 67 percent of the Forest Service’s budget by 2025, stealing $700 million from non-fire programs such as managing wildlife and hiking trails. The problem is so acute that former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joked that the Forest Service should be called the “Fire Service” instead.
While the Forest Service struggles to fight fires, a backlog of restoration projects is building. They have identified more than 58 million acres of forests across the country that are at risk of severe wildfires, including 11 million acres near homes, communities and critical watersheds.
The Forest Service lacks the resources to pay for the necessary large-scale restoration, but this doesn’t mean we have to wait to act. These projects can be financed through social impact bonds and creative public-partnerships.
The Forest Resilience Bond, for example, aims to leverage public funds to accelerate private investment in landscape restoration. Created by Blue Forest Conservation, World Resources Institute and Encourage Capital, it lets public land managers and water utilities – which benefit from healthy forests – repay those who make upfront investments in large-scale forest restoration. The savings from reduced fire risks are then shared to deliver investor returns.
Completing the backlog of restoration projects will take years. In the meantime, we need to optimize federal government budgets for fire management and address local zoning ordinances and property insurance coverage to ensure the worst impacts from forest fires are avoided.
We can’t keep fighting wildfires while failing to tackle their root causes. It’s expensive, inefficient and dangerous. We must rethink the way that we manage wildfires in the U.S. West. That means making preventative measures such as forest restoration a priority long after the flames have been extinguished.
Todd Gartner is a senior associate for the World Resources Institute’s Water Program. Reach him at email@example.com.