The urgency facing us in the era of mega-wildfires

By Jim Russell
Empire Press Correspondent

We live in an era when mega-wildfires are more prevalent, more disastrous and more deadly than in past decades. Even worse, the danger is escalating at a much faster rate which puts our communities at risk. In my opinion, it’s the most urgent regional issue we have. I’m going to emphasize why the wildfires issue is urgent and, at the end of this column, list ways you can help.

Two people in the Wenatchee area are devoting their time to promote awareness to the urgency needed to face the problem at the individual, community, state and national levels by producing a video tentatively called “The Wildfire Project.” (View it at north40productions.com/projects/.)

They are Jeff Ostenson, executive producer at North 40 Productions in Wenatchee which has produced many documentaries viewed by millions around the world; and Paul Hessburg, Ph.D., a leading national authority on the impact of wildfires with the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service in Wenatchee.

“The Wildfire Project” is scheduled to be shown in at least 10 communities throughout the Northwest, with an accompanying talk and discussion led by Hessburg.

The producers invited about 90 informed citizens to attend a focus group showing of the video and hear Hessburg’s talk on July 11 at the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center.

The purpose of the focus group event was to give feedback to the early version of the presentation. From my perspective, the most compelling feedback they heard was to “sharpen the stick” of the message to create a more painful urgency among communities.

Three sets of data provide the compelling warning that our communities face a Level 3 alert on wildfires. We must abandon our current plans for fighting wildfires and rebuild Firewise homes, communities, regions and nations now.

First, statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center (www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_statistics.html) report the number of acres burned annually on all private, state and federal lands has accelerated. From 1985 to 1999, the total acres burned in any one year exceeded six million acres once in 1996. From 2000 to 2015, wildfires burned more than seven million acres in nine different years, including last year’s record of 10 million acres. That is an explosive increase in the average number of acres burned annually.

Hessburg said one of reasons wildfires burned more acres is because global warming has swollen the dangerous wildfire season by 60 days, 30 more in the spring and 30 more in the fall.

The blow-up of acres burned should be as compelling as a sheriff standing at your door saying, “This is a Level 3 alert — evacuate your home now.”

Second, data shows that the cost of fighting wildfires is rising as fast as a crown fire fanned by winds roaring up a hillside. Hessburg told the focus group that the cost to fight wildfires consumed 50 percent of the Forest Service budget.

The 2015 Broadview fire blew up from the Sleepy Hollow Fire. Fire Chief Mike Burnett describes the Sleepy Hollow firefight in the video, “Mother Nature gave us a battle where we could hold our own and we had the resources to do it.”

Suddenly wind gusts blew embers sideways to fuel-loaded grasslands and storage warehouses miles away. In less than 30 minutes, the firefighters and their equipment were overwhelmed.

Acres burning and resources overwhelmed are two catastrophes devastating restoration resources planned to reduce the problem, and consequently adding fuel for future wildfires.

Money to fight wildfires comes from budgets designed to restore private, state and federal lands by reducing fuel loads, thinning forests and building Firewise protections for communities.

Third, Hessburg told us natural forces have been loading up fuel for ignition on six acres every year while human efforts have been reducing risks on one acre every year. The unhealthy flammable forests and shrub steppe lands are growing six times faster than the healthier and less flammable lands.

If you want to learn more about how to support the project or to get involved in a focus group, go to north40productions.com, or contact Sara Rolfs at 679-2043 or email sararolfs@nwi.net. More information is also available from the Cascadia Conservation District by emailing Amanda Levesque Newell at AmandaL@cascadiacd.org. General Firewise information is available at firewise.org.