Wildfires - What is at Stake?
Regions most vulnerable to wildfires are shown in this NASA picture that recorded wildfires of 250 acres or larger between 1980 and 2003.
This picture clearly emphasizes that wildfires are a serious national challenge.
According to Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D., a forest restoration expert, more than three million acres of California land burned between 2000 and 2008. There are an additional eight million acres, or roughly 2/3 of the identified acreage, still at risk of high intensity and catastrophic wildfire. Perhaps it is safe to assume that by the time the fire cycle closes, the first acres that burned will have accumulated enough new fuel to renew the fire cycle.
Firefighting costs in California’s national forests alone have climbed to one billion dollars a year in recent years. From 1994 to 2004 California’s direct firefighting costs grew from about $ 40 million to over $ 250 million annually. Although federal and state agencies share fire suppression costs, the state now needs to dip into emergency funds on a regular basis. Nationwide the National Wildland Urban Interface Council (NWUIC) estimates the total annual economic impact of wildfires to taxpayers, communities and businesses to exceed 10 billion dollars.
According to the Interagency (Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, National Park Service, et al.) Quadrennial Fire Report (QFR) of 2009, the brunt of wildfire suppression costs falls back to the federal government because most fires impact the national forests or other public land. The 10-year average for fire suppression costs from 1998 to 2008 shows that during nine years this cost was over one billion dollars and during four of those 10 years firefighting cost reached two billion dollars – and that is just the cost of firefighting.
According to information by the NWUIC, nation wide there are 70,000 communities with 46 million homes and a total population of 120 million people living near or in the wildland urban interface and potentially subject to wildfire impact. In California alone CDF’s fire and resource assessment program (CALFRAP) estimates about eight million people now live in the wildland urban interface or wildland urban intermix.
While the QFR indicates the trend of urbanizing the wildlands has slowed a little in recent years, probably due to the worst economic downturn in a lifetime, it nevertheless continues. The NWUIC estimates that annually two million acres of land are converted from wildland to wildland urban interface.
Bonnicksen points out that during one week in October of 2007, wildfires in Southern California released about 19 million tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. He also notes that by the time the burned wood has decomposed an additional 29 million tons of CO2 emissions will have escaped into the air. To place the 19 million tons into perspective, these emissions equal that of 5.3 million cars for one year. Of course this does not take into account the carbon dioxide the trees and bushes could have removed from the atmosphere had they not been destroyed by fire.
Forests serve as very important agents for drinking water, as they pickup rain and filter the water through the soil into deeper aquifers on which we depend for drinking water. Californians receive about 75 percent of their drinking water from forested watersheds. The 2003 Old-, Grand Prix- and Padua fires in the greater Los Angeles area burned about 175 square miles of critical watershed for the Santa Ana River. Five million people depend on this watershed for their water. Subsequent winter rains washed an estimated 700 million cubic yards of silt and sediment into this watershed, causing expensive repairs and restoration efforts. By the end of 2005 the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority already spent more than 50 million dollars. It is estimated that the total cost of mitigating the fires’ impact on this single watershed will reach 450 million dollars.
The impact of high intensity wildfires on flora and fauna is equally devastating. While some wildlife can escape the flames, many, especially slow moving animals, have no chance of surviving the impact of a wildfire. This becomes a serious problem when already endangered species are affected. High intensity fires reach temperatures well above 1,000 °F. They not only burn the top layer of forest soil, they sterilize the soil and change its chemical composition with long lasting effects on its recovery. Furthermore, once an entire forest is destroyed it takes well over 70 years before a significant number of trees have matured to the point where they constitute a forest with all its benefits.
Potentially devastating effects also hold true for wildfire impact on cultural heritage sites or on sites of particular value like the Griffith Observatory, which was threatened during the Station Fire or the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was impacted during the Cerro Grande Fire.
Understanding the far-reaching implications of the negative effects of high intensity and high impact, or catastrophic, wildfires demonstrates that the effects are absorbed by all members of society – directly or indirectly. Thus, the burden of mitigating the risk of such fires from occurring is everyone’s responsibility. It is especially the responsibility of those stakeholders in a position to influence shifts in behavior and paradigms to assume a leading role in this effort. This is especially true in times when governmental resources are limited by huge budget deficits.
For references please visit the section on 'fire insurance'.