Wednesday, July 18, 2018

U.S. needs to change approach to firefighting, expert says

Not all wildfires are the same; some are in rural areas, some in wildlands, some in exurbs, and one expert argues that the U.S. needs to stop trying to fight them the same way. "Every major fire rekindles another round of commentaries about 'America’s wildfire problem.' But the fact is that our nation does not have a fire problem. It has many fire problems, and they require different strategies. Some problem fires have technical solutions, some demand cultural calls. All are political," Stephen Pyne writes for The Conversation. Pyne is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. "Here’s one idea: It’s time to rethink firefighting in the geekily labeled wildland-urban interface, or WUI – zones where human development intermingles with forests, grasslands and other feral vegetation."

In WUI zones, houses and natural vegetation intermix, giving wildfires more and different fuel to spread. WUI is a familiar term in the West, but some of the worst WUI risks are in the Southeast as evidenced by the 2016 fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg, Tenn. But urban/suburban firefighters control fires differently than firefighters in wild areas, Pyne writes. Urban firefighters are trained to stifle all fire to protect lives; wildlands firefighters try to mostly control fire with water and dirt, removing flammable vegetation so fires stay reasonably contained and the landscape stays healthy.

"The training that each group gets is largely worthless in the other’s setting," Pyne writes. "There are a few instances of cross-training, particularly in rural areas, but the prime example of a major agency that tries to cope with both types of threats is the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. Its experience shows what fusing these two purposes can mean."

Cal Fire operates a little like urban fire services and a little like wildlands fire services: it aims to control fire mostly by reducing flammable material in such settings and controlling small burns. Suppressing all fires just creates conditions for worse wildfires, so the firefighters try to protect all lives and keep fires from spreading to other communities. 

But such a model is too expensive to be replicated on a national level, and Pyne notes that firefighting already takes up more than 50 percent of the U.S. Forest Service's annual budget. Instead, Pyne recommends that WUI communities try to improve their resilience to fires and be more careful about power lines, which cause a lot of fires.

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