President’s Desk:Â This past fall, I had the opportunity to provide a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on issues IAWF felt were important to the U.S. wildland fire community. The focus of the letter was “it’s time to make wildland fire policies work better.”
Fires last year in the United States from Florida to California, Minnesota to New Mexico, were devastating and deadly. This occurred not just here but around the globe.
Although firefighting skills, knowledge and technology have vastly improved over the last century, wildfire size and impacts are growing worse. As the detrimental effects on lives and property are escalating, so, too, are the impacts on our livelihoods and the treasury.
When you consider that more than 70,000 U.S. communities with 46 million homes where 120 million people live, work and recreate are in areas at high risk of wildland fire, it is easy to understand why this crisis is expanding. It is time for firefighters, political leaders, agency
managers, business owners, researchers and residents to forge a new paradigm for the 21st century. Natural resource agencies and wildland fire management professionals are struggling to get ahead of this crisis. To many, it seems that wildfires have become the “default setting.” In other words, if no
other action is taken to solve this growing crisis, the default action will continue to result in larger, more deadly and costly wildfires.
Statistics tell the straightforward and unbiased truth that there is little tangible momentum occurring to curb this growing problem. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent over the past several years on firefighting, mitigation, education and training.
Why aren’t we seeing fewer wildland fires; a substantial reduction in civilian and firefighter fatali- ties; a reduction in the number of homes being destroyed; a decrease in firefighting costs; a decrease in smoke-related public health issues or less damage to renewable resources such as water, air quality, wood fiber supply and agricultural soils? These are the central questions in this ongoing debate.
Federal and state agencies can’t control sprawl, develop land use plans or set building, fire or wildland urban interface (WUI) codes. We can’t change the weather or quickly remove the fuels in front of a fire. However, we can perform mitigation work to the forest and other vegetation and begin to more effectively deal with overstocked stands and their susceptibility to insects prior to the occurrence of wildfires.
Unfortunately, these methodologies raise controversies faster than they can lower fire risks – and some will argue that federal, state and local fire suppression efforts in WUI areas are actually a subsidy for development, increasing the amount of and conversion in these fire-prone areas.
It is time for a thorough examination of U.S. wildland fire programs, including the costs, duplica- tion of efforts between agencies and leadership. Most importantly, we must examine past efforts.
We need a serious and fresh approach to this issue, which includes an examination of forest restoration and management. If our desire is to keep the forests and ecosystems intact, we must increase our resolve to eliminate the cause of indecision.
Making significant improvements in wildfire protection requires strong public support, and this support will only come when the general public understands the absolute importance of natural resources to a world that doesn’t seem to want to reduce population trends or its consumption of wood, water, air and food.
We hope that the Obama Administration will set an example to provide leadership and get Congress better engaged – as well as begin the process of engaging all of the agencies, organizations, businesses and academia to identify and fix what is broken.