The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 8, 2013

Other Views: Wildfires spark need to adapt

By Megan Gates
The Mankato, Minn., Free Press

— 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 inferred by President Obama, who said its effects mean “firefighters are braving longer wildfire seasons” because of it?

Conservative land-use advocates argue that the federal government has neglected its proper management of forests and wildlands producing “tinderbox conditions.”

They cite environmental pushes to restrict road-building in some forests inhibiting the clearing of dead stands of trees as well as reaching wildfires. This is especially true after beetle infestations killed many stands of forest which environmentalists argue is caused by higher temperatures.

Environmentalists argue that harvesting affects biodiversity and tends to favor certain trees over others, adversely affecting the animal species that may depend on such things as old-growth forests. And roads for extraction cause erosion and fragment the landscape.

Now the political argument that sequestration is to blame for the lack of adequate fire prevention: It reportedly cut about 7.5 percent out of the Forest Service’s budget, nearly half of which is spent on fighting wildfires.

However, experts have been reluctant to link the tragic loss of 19 elite firefighters in Arizona to budget cuts. Rather they cite shifting winds that can impact any team fighting a wildfire.

There is acknowledgement from firefighters that the 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.

With a little more “innovation out there we might have learned something in the past 10 years,” Bill Stewart, co-director of the University of California Center for Fire Research and Outreach, said. “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 it did 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.”

His solution was that the federal government needs to adapt proper management techniques in anticipation that climate change will have impacts and move to “mitigate their potential effects.”

As a nation, we should recognize impacts produce change and we need to adapt to meet those changes rather than curse the impacts or wish them away.

—The Mankato (Minn.) Free Press