Report: Massive Wildfires Called the New Normal
PHOENIX -- Megafires such as the Wallow blaze that burned more than a half million acres in 2011 and the Rodeo-Chidiski fire in 2002 will be much more common in the future - according to a new report, which blames climate change, unhealthy forest conditions and serious funding issues.
Researchers from the National Wildlife Federation estimate that more than 8.5 million acres have burned this year, costing billions. Brad Powell, president of the Arizona Wildlife Federation, said Congress needs to set aside a special disaster fund instead of forcing the Forest Service to raid funds meant for recreation, wildlife management and forest restoration.
"It allows fire control to spend all the available funds in the agency, which cripples all the other programs,” Powell said. "That results in less healthy forests and less benefit to the American public - and it's time for that to change."
Powell said the U.S. has seen multiple so-called 100-year events just in the past five or six years, and he blames drier conditions linked to climate change. The report noted that the Schultz fire near Flagstaff in 2010 burned 15,000 acres of forest and led to major flooding that killed a little girl. The total impact topped $130 million.
Shannon Heyck-Williams, climate and energy policy adviser with the National Wildlife Federation, said past fire suppression practices have turned out to be counterproductive.
"We've heard about Smokey the Bear. Wildfires have been treated as an always negative thing, so we've been overaggressive in our suppression of forest fires when we should have actually let a lot of these burn at a lower intensity,” Heyck-Williams said. "And so now there's a lot of forest debris and vegetation that is just ready to catch on fire."
Powell added, to make matters worse, last year's rainy winter, coming after years of drought, caused an overgrowth of grasses that have now dried out and are ripe to fuel the next megafire.