US Plans Wildfire Fighting Where Forests and Neighborhoods Collide | Montana News

By MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – The Biden administration plans to dramatically expand its efforts to stave off catastrophic wildfires that have scorched parts of the western United States by more aggressively thinning forests around areas called “hot spots.” where nature and neighborhoods collide.

As climate change warms and dries out the West, administration officials said they have drawn up a $50 billion plan to more than double the use of controlled fires and logging to cut down trees and other plants that serve as tinder in the areas most at risk.

They said work will begin this year in areas where out-of-control fires have wiped out neighborhoods and sometimes entire communities – including California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain foothills and parts of the Oregon and Washington state, officials said.

“You are going to have forest fires. The question is how catastrophic these fires must be,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Associated Press ahead of the planned public announcement of the administration’s firefighting strategy. of Forest at an event Tuesday in Phoenix.

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“The time to act is now if we ultimately want to change the trajectory of these fires over time,” Vilsack said.

Specific projects weren’t immediately announced, and it’s unclear who would pay for all of the planned work on nearly 80,000 square miles (200,000 square kilometers) – an area nearly as large as Idaho. . About half of this area is owned or controlled by states or tribes, making their participation in the plan crucial.

Achieving that goal would require about $20 billion over 10 years for work on national forests and $30 billion for work on other federal, state, tribal and private lands, said Vilsack spokeswoman Kate. Waters.

Vilsack acknowledged that the new effort will also require a “paradigm shift” within the U.S. Forest Service, from an agency dedicated to eradicating wildfires, to one that uses what some Native Americans call “good fire” on forests and rangelands to prevent even larger outbreaks.

Forest Service planning documents say work will focus on “hot spots” which make up only 10% of fire-prone areas in the United States, but represent 80% of community risk due to their fire densities. population and their location.

The recently passed federal infrastructure bill put a down payment on the initiative — $3.2 billion over five years that Vilsack says will get work moving quickly.

Wildfire expert John Abatzoglou said reducing fire danger on the amount of land envisioned under the administration’s plan is a “lofty goal” that represents even more area than that burned in the past. over the past 10 years in the West. But Abatzoglou, an engineering professor at the University of California, Merced, said the focus on wildfire hazards closest to communities made sense.

“Our dashboard for fires should be about lives saved rather than acres that haven’t burned,” he said.

Dealing with western wildfires is becoming more urgent as they grow more destructive and intense. There have been rare winter fires in recent weeks, including infernos in Montana and Colorado, where a December 30 wildfire ripped through a suburban area and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, killing one and a second still missing.

And there are no signs of letting up in conditions that keep the risk of wildfires extremely high. A long-term ‘mega-drought’ is gripping the region and scientists predict temperatures will continue to rise as more climate-altering carbon emissions are pumped into the atmosphere .

The impact extends far beyond the western United States, as massive smoke plumes at the height of wildfire season in the United States and Canada spread health effects to across North America, sending unhealthy pollution last summer through major cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia and Toronto.

For decades, the main approach to containing and extinguishing wildfires has been to try to eradicate them. The efforts have been similar to massive military-style campaigns, including planes, fleets of heavy equipment and thousands of firefighters and support workers dispatched to blaze areas.

However, fires are part of the natural cycle of most forests, so put them out from unburned stands of trees surrounded by dead wood, undergrowth and other highly flammable combustibles – a scenario from the worse when fires ignite.

Critics said US agencies are too focused on fighting the fires and trying to solve the problem by cutting more trees will only harm forests. In South Dakota’s Black Hills, for example, government biologists have said too many trees dying from a combination of insects, fires and logging have made current levels of timber harvesting unsustainable. .

But Vilsack said a combination of tree thinning and intentional fires to clear undergrowth, called prescribed burns, would make forests healthier in the long term while reducing the threat to public safety.

He said forests that had been thinned near Lake Tahoe and its tourist gateway community of South Lake Tahoe were credited with slowing the advance of last summer’s massive Caldor Fire that caused the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents and tourists from the iconic area.

A similar phenomenon occurred during the Bootleg Fire in Oregon last July, which burned more than 1,500 square kilometers but caused less damage in parts of the forest that had been thinned out during the last decade.

“We know it works,” Vilsack said. “It’s about removing some of the wood, in a very scientific and thoughtful way, so that at the end of the day the fires don’t keep jumping from treetop to treetop. , but eventually come to the ground where we can put them out.”

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