US plans $50 billion wildfire fight where forests meet civilization

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Biden administration said Tuesday it would dramatically expand its efforts to stave off catastrophic wildfires that have scorched parts of the western United States by more aggressively thinning forests around “hotspots.” warm” 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. Only part of the work has been funded so far.

Projects 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 Californiathe 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,” said Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack told The Associated Press in an interview. “The time to act is now if we are to ultimately change the trajectory of these fires over time.”

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 extinguishing firesinto one that uses what some Native Americans call “good fire” on forests and rangelands to prevent even bigger fires.

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 densities of fire. population and their location.

The recently passed federal infrastructure bill put a down payment on the initiative — about $3 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.

Vilsack joined Forest Service Chief Randy Moore in announcing the plan at an event in Phoenix where he defended its scope as realistic.

“We know from a scientific perspective precisely where this action needs to take place in many of these forests in order to protect communities, in order to protect people,” Vilsack said following the announcement at the Desert Botanical Garden. , a popular showcase for cacti, desert trees and other dry weather plants.

Dealing with wildfires in the West 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. 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 say the government’s plan to use logging to reduce fire damage will harm both forests and the wildlife and water supplies that depend on them. In South Dakota’s Black Hills, for example, government biologists said too many trees were dying from a combination of insects, fires and logging. unsustainable levels of timber harvesting.

“The US Forest Service simply cannot pull itself out of the climate crisis,” said Adam Rissien of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.

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 Oregon contraband fire last July, which burned more than 600 square miles (1,500 square kilometers) but caused less damage in the 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 just keep jumping from treetop to treetop, but eventually get to the ground where we can put them out. ”


Cooper reported from Phoenix.

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