US Plans $50 Billion Wildfire Fight Where Forests Meet Civilization | 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 trees and other plants that serve as tinder in the areas most at risk.

They said work will begin this year and the plan will focus on areas where out-of-control fires have wiped out neighborhoods and sometimes entire communities – including the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, the east side of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and parts of Arizona. , Oregon and Washington State. Homes continue to be built in fire-prone areas, even as the conditions that fueled the fires worsen.

“You are going to have forest fires. The question is how catastrophic these fires must be,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Associated Press in an interview before announcing the administration’s wildfire strategy on 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 plans weren’t immediately released, 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. . Much of this area is controlled by states, tribes or is owned by private interests.

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 “the good fire” on forests and rangelands to prevent even larger outbreaks.

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

However, fires are part of the natural cycle of most forests. Therefore, extinguish them from stands of unburning trees surrounded by dead wood, undergrowth and other highly flammable combustibles – a worst-case scenario 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.

Thinning forests near Lake Tahoe and its tourist community of South Lake Tahoe have been credited with slowing the advance of last summer’s massive Caldor Fire that destroyed nearly 800 homes and prompted the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents and tourists.

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 forest that has been thinned over the past 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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