Foresters take fast action to mitigate future fire seasons


By Ben Goad
The Press Enterprise

WASHINGTON — The nation's worsening fire seasons are, in part, a consequence of global warming and are likely to get more severe unless forest managers step up tree removal efforts and prescribed fire programs, a group of scientists testified Monday before a congressional panel.

A series of deadly and destructive Inland fire seasons, demonstrated recently by the 14,000-acre Butler 2 Fire near Big Bear, had been attributed to, among other things, a drought cycle expected to eventually pass.

But the findings presented Monday to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources suggest a lasting trend in the region, and across the nation.

The link between climate change and wildfires is easily apparent on a global and national scale, according to Susan Conard, national program leader for the U.S. Forest Service's Fire Ecology Research division.

"Annual burned areas have exceeded 7 million acres only seven times since 1960," Conard testified. "Six of those have been in the past 20 years."

In the last five years, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have seen some of the worst blazes in the region's history.

In 2003, the Old and Grand Prix fires, part of a series of blazes that simultaneously ravaged Southern California for a month, destroyed about 1,000 homes in the San Bernardino Valley and mountain communities. Last year's Esperanza Fire claimed the lives of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters as it torched more than 40,000 acres near Banning.

The increased severity and length of fires seasons comes as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports a clear pattern of temperatures nationwide. The hotter weather is coupled with predictions of decreased precipitation in the Southwest, Conrad said.

Trees Weakened
Wildfires thrive in hot, dry weather. But the conditions also contribute to the die-off of trees, which must compete for water in forests that have become unnaturally dense because of a century of misguided fire suppression. Once dead and brittle, the trees become more fuel for catastrophic fires.

The panelists testified that more resources are needed to keep up with necessary tree thinning and removal campaigns. One witness, University of Arizona Professor Thomas Swetnam, said even that won't be enough to reverse the trend.

"I don't think we can thin our way out of this," Swetnam said.

He said more prominent use of intentionally set fires to mimic naturally occurring blazes has certain risks, but is less costly than mechanical thinning with hand crews and chainsaws.

Ann Bartuska, deputy chief of research and development for the Forest Service, said the agency has been authorized to spend roughly $20 million a year to study the best way to modify forest management plans to adapt to the science linking climate change to worsening fire seasons.

On a local level, the impact of global warming is less apparent because of other factors that have led to increasingly destructive fire seasons, Swetnam said following the hearing.

"It gets quite murky in Southern California," Swetnam said, pointing to a population explosion in mountain and rural areas.

The development, fire officials say, makes fires more dangerous because people are in the paths of the flames and more difficult to extinguish because firefighters must often focus on protecting lives and homes.

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