Administration officials announced that they have created a $50 billion plan for climate change to increase heat and dry out the West. This plan will more than double the use and log of controlled fires to reduce the amount of vegetation that acts as tinder in most at-risk zones.
Officials said that work will be started this year in areas where out-of control blazes have decimated neighborhoods and sometimes whole communities. This includes California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, Colorado's Rocky Mountain foothills, and parts of Oregon and Washington.
"You will have forest fires. Agriculture Sec. asked "How catastrophic are those fires?" Tom Vilsack spoke to the Associated Press ahead of a public announcement by the administration about its wildfire strategy at a Phoenix event on Tuesday.
Vilsack stated, "The time is now to act if we wish to eventually over time change these fires' trajectory."
Specific projects were not announced immediately and it isn't clear who would pay for the entire scope of work that's planned across nearly 80,000 square miles (200,000 km). This area is almost as big as Idaho. The plan will be crucially important because half of that area is owned or controlled privately by states and tribes.
According to Kate Waters, spokesperson for Vilsack, reaching that goal would require $20 billion in 10 years for national forests work and $30 billion for other federal, state and tribal lands.
Vilsack acknowledged that this new effort will require a paradigm shift within the U.S Forest Service. From an agency that focuses on fighting fires to one that uses "good fire" to protect forests and rangeland, Vilsack said that it would also require a "paradigm change" within the U.S Forest Service.
According to Forest Service plans, the focus of work will be on hotspots that only 10% of fire-prone areas in the U.S., but pose 80% risk to communities due their high population density and location.
Vilsack stated that the federal infrastructure bill, which was recently passed, provided a down payment of $3.2 billion over five year. Vilsack believes this will help get work moving quickly.
John Abatzoglou, a wildfire expert, said that reducing fire dangers on the land amount envisioned by the administration's plan was a "lofty objective" that would result in more land than has been burned in the West over the past decade. Abatzoglou, a University of California Merced engineer professor, believes that wildfire dangers closest to communities make sense.
He stated, "Our scorecard for fire should not be about acres that burned but lives saved."
As wildfires in the west become more intense and destructive, it is becoming more urgent to deal with them. Recent weeks have seen rare winter blazes, including infernos from Montana and Colorado. On Dec. 30, a wildfire ripped through a suburb and destroyed over 1,000 buildings. One person was killed and another is still missing.
There are no signs that the conditions will improve, which means wildfire danger is at an all-time high. The region is experiencing a long-term megadrought, and scientists predict that temperatures will continue to rise as more carbon dioxide from climate change enters the atmosphere.
The effects extend far beyond the west U.S., as massive smoke plumes from wildfire season in Canada and the U.S. spread health effects throughout North America, causing unhealthy pollution to major cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Toronto last summer.
The primary strategy for containing and extinguishing forestfires was to eradicate them. This has been the practice for decades. These efforts were similar to large, military-like campaigns that included planes, heavy equipment fleets and thousands of firefighters and support workers sent to the fire areas.
Fires are part of most forests' natural cycle. Therefore, putting out fires left stands of trees that didn’t burn and were surrounded by dead wood and other highly-flammable fuels. This is the worst-case scenario for when flames start to ignite.
Critics claim that the U.S. agencies have become too focused on fighting fires, and that cutting more trees to solve the problem will only cause harm to the forests. Government biologists in South Dakota's Black Hills have stated that timber harvest levels are unsustainable because too many trees have died from insects, fire, and logging.
Vilsack stated that a combination tree thinning and deliberately setting fires to clear the undergrowth, which are known as prescribed burns, will make the forests more healthy over the long-term while also reducing public safety risks.
He claimed that the Caldor Fire, which prompted evacuations of thousands of people and tourists from the region's iconic region, was slowed down by the thinning of forests near Lake Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe.
Similar events occurred during Oregon's Bootleg Fire last July. It burned over 600 miles (1,500 kilometers) of forest, but caused less damage to areas that had been thinned in the past decade.
Vilsack stated, "We know that this works." Vilsack stated, "It's removing some timber in a scientific and thoughtful manner so that fires don’t hop from one tree to another, but ultimately come to ground, where we can put them out."