U.S. Forest Service Stretched After Record Wildfires Year

By Oliver Milman, The Guardian

The U.S. Forest Service has warned it is at the “tipping point” of a crisis in dealing with escalating wildfires and diseases that are ravaging America’s increasingly fragile forest ecosystems.

The federal agency, which manages 193 million acres of forest, will plead once again for more funding from Congress, in the wake of a devastating 2015 that saw record swaths of forest engulfed in flames.

The Cable Crossing Fire burned east of Glide, Oregon on July 28, 2015. 
Credit: Jeffrey McEnroe, BLM/flickr

A total of 10.1 million acres were burned last year, a figure that is double the typical losses seen 30 years ago. During this time, the average fire season in the U.S. has lengthened by 78 days, with scientists predicting that the amount of forest razed by fire will double by 2050.

Climate change-driven drought, wildfire and invasive diseases are stretching the U.S. Forest Service to breaking point, the agency has warned. It spent about 65 percent of its $5 billion budget dealing with wildfires last year and is requesting that fire be treated like other natural disasters so that it is able to access more money to keep pace.

“We are seeing real challenges on the ground – climate change is real and it is with us,” Robert Bonnie, under secretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told the Guardian. “The whole U.S. Forest Service is shifting to becoming an agency dominated by wildfires. We really are at a tipping point. The current situation is not sustainable.”

Bonnie said the growing conflagration of America’s forests means the U.S. Forest Service has had to divert resources from other areas, such as the kind of forest restoration that helps prevent future wildfires. Attempts to remedy this situation with a new disaster fund were dashed when it was not included in the federal budget in December.

“We will keep on this and try again this year,” he said. “There are clear challenges that are hard to argue with. Fighting catastrophic fires is becoming even more dangerous because there are more homes and people in our forest areas. If we don’t deal with this, the trends are going to look very bad indeed.”

Last year, Washington state endured its largest wildfires on record, with three people dying and more than 100 homes lost. The blazes were declared a national emergency, with the smoke causing a haze to settle over Seattle for several days. Nationally, 13 firefighters died tackling various wildfires last year.

Oregon State Command Sgt. Maj. Shane Lake (center) receives instruction during wildfire cleanup operations in support of firefighting efforts at the Grizzly Bear Complex near Elgin, Oregon, Sept. 2, 2015.
Credit: Master Sgt. Thomas Hovie, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs/flickr

Major wildfires are just one of several threats to the U.S.’s ailing forest system. A report released by the U.S. Forest Service last week found that worsening drought conditions will increase the risk of tree and shrub death as well as unleash outbreaks of insect infestation. More than 20 million acres of forest in the U.S. west has already been affected by bark beetles that thrive in dry, warm conditions.

“Droughts are predicted to accelerate the pace of invasion by some nonnative plant species into rangelands and grasslands,” the report states. “Drought can also promote plant invasion indirectly by modifying the environment to favor nonnative species. Indirect effects of drought on forests can be widespread and devastating.”

California is currently enduring its worst drought in 1,200 years, while the national climate change assessment, released in 2014, stated that “widespread drought is projected to become more common over most of the central and southern United States” if greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly curtailed.

“We are seeing significant problems with forest health across the country, with acute problems in the west,” said Bonnie. “The warmer temperatures are putting trees under stress. We have changed the ecosystems so they are more susceptible to disease and catastrophic fire, as well as raised the temperature around them. This is a real challenge for us.”

Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.