Chris O’Brien fought his first wildfire in 1989. Today, he is Deputy Fire Chief of the Lefthand Fire Protection District. He and his team protect about 52 square miles of Boulder county, in the Front Range of Colorado. I met Chris on a hot Tuesday afternoon in August. I planned on an hour-long conversation at his fire station. Instead, Chris took me and my bike on his truck and drove us up to the small village of Jamestown, where he lives. We then spent the rest of the day on the stoop of his house, talking about the new normal of wildfires in the West.
Chris remembers that 1989 fire very well. “When we got ready to engage, one of the more veteran firefighters said that this was a real “career fire”, one of the biggest fires that I would see in my career as a fire fighter. Yet today, I have to say that almost every year since then, there has been a fire in Colorado that eclipsed that one.”
With an estimated 366,200 properties (17% of all properties in Colorado) exposed to high or extreme wildfire risk, Colorado currently ranks third in the national ranking of US states’ exposure to wildfire risk (California is number 1, followed by Texas). Thus far, the year 2019 has been a calm year for wildfires in Colorado and elsewhere in the conterminous United States, with fire activities well below the long-term average. In Colorado, an unusually wet spring and summer season have contributed to keeping fire danger below-average until late August. But the fire season is not over yet, and a dry late summer and fall could still chang e this.
Per se, wildfires are not a new phenomenon in North America. Indeed, they have shaped the ecology along the Rocky Mountains for thousands of years and. Some native tree species, like lodgepole pine, need the high temperatures of fire for their cones to open and seeds to spread. Yet today, warming temperatures are reduced snowpack are direct drivers of the relatively unprecedented frequency and intensity of wildfires in the West. Data provided by NASA indicates that 61% of all wildfires registered in the Western U.S since the 1950s have occurred since the year 2000. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the number of large wildfires in the Western U.S. has increased from roughly 160 during the 1990s, to about 250 from 2000-2012. And according to the Congressional Research Service, since the year 2000, an average of 7 million acres have been scorched annually – that’s double the number of annual acreage burned by wildfires during the 1990s. The year 2015 was the largest wildfire season on record in US history, with more than 10 million acres of land burned. For comparison: by the end of August, this summer’s fires in Alaska and Siberia have burned about 8.5 million acres of land, while the fires in the Amazon have burned about 4.5 million thus far, as reported by National Geographic. That said, “number of acres burned” does by no means provide a direct indication for the environmental, economic or social impact that those, or any other fire events, are having locally and globally.
Those trends are more than just statistics to Chris. “When I started my career as a firefighter 30 years ago, the fire season in Colorado used to be predictable. You knew that the season would start in late April/mid May and last until Sept/Oct. Now it starts much earlier and ends later. In fact, we now see wildland fires in Colorado all twelve months of the year. We are also seeing unusual fire behaviour, like large fires happening early in the season and lasting for several weeks. In the past, such early-season fires would usually be individual day events, and larger fires would only occur later in the season. The things I see in the field, Chris continued, match well with what I read in terms of scientific conclusions.”
Chris pointed out that climate change is however not the only driver of the increased impacts of wildfires in the West. There are at least two additional factors that come into play. “For one, more and more people are moving into the wildland-urban intermix and are exposing themselves to wildfires. This means that we now have more private property at risk,” Chris said. Secondly, this development has led to increased political pressure to protect private property and fight fires more aggressively, which has had unintended consequences. Chris explained: “We have done an outstanding job at protecting private property values, ranching and timber investing. And because we have protected them so ardently, the landscape is now over-managed. By taking the natural fire element out of the landscape, we now have more fuel than we should have. Coupled with the environmental malaise that we have gotten; it explains the trouble we are in now.”
The increased frequency and intensity of wildfires not only means bigger risks for civilians, firefighters and the natural world. It also increases the costs of firefighting and may create resource constraints; particularly as federal firefighting resources are traditionally available on a seasonal basis. “We collaborate very well with our state and federal partners, but the resource system is somewhat in mismatch with the new reality of fires happening all year round. We need new models and new collaborations,” Chris pointed out.
While the climate related drivers of wildfire risk in the West can only be addressed through the required global mitigation actions, there are a number of solutions that are being applied locally for better adapting to the new reality. Chris pointed out four solutions in particular:
Managing for objectives and re-introducing broad-cast burning. “Because we are a living in fire ecology here in Colorado, we need to use fire more often than we do today. Indeed, we should use fire more often to benefit the environment, reduce fuel stock and reduce risks,” Chris O’Brien pointed out. In firefighter’s jargon, such broad-cast burning is called “managing for objectives”, meaning that fire is allowed to develop to meet specific objectives. For example, by loosely herding a fire towards an old fire scar, a fire can be kept in ground and better contained in intensity, instead of it becoming a full crown-fire.
Education. Many people moving into the intermix come from cities and might not fully grasp what it means to live in a fire ecology. Living in a rural environment also means that rescue services may take a longer time to arrive on site. “We are doing our absolute best to protect people and private property, but sometimes we cannot meet the expectations of some people coming from the city, with the resources we have available.” By educating people about what it means to live in a fire ecology, how people can protect their property, a lot of risk vulnerability can be reduced. Doing so arguably requires that people collaborate with firefighters, take evacuation orders seriously and understand that living in a fire ecology might come with expensive investments in proper mitigation and construction techniques.
Technology and better modelling. Modern fire-fighting relies heavily on technology. For example, LIDAR technology helps better assess the size of fuel stock, drones and infra-red make fire detection much faster. With much more sophisticated fire risk models and analysis, the community has come a long way in understanding and anticipating fire behaviour. However, the improved data and information bears the risk of a double-edged sword, Chris mentioned, as it can lead to the above-mentioned trend of undoing the positive effects of a wildfire in a fire ecology.
Improved decision-making and partnerships. To make best use of improved information, broad-based collaboration and partnerships are essential. Doing so is not always easy, though. “There are so many different interests and stakeholders involved in managing for objective practices. We bring all the information back to the planners and authorities and decide collaboratively about the best approach in a specific situation.” Arguably, it is a balancing act to fight a fire or put it out. The immediate or more long-term consequences can be far-reaching.
Solutions such as those mentioned here are all intertwined. Their effectiveness is greatest, when they are applied in coordination, as part of a holistic firefighting plan adapted to local circumstances. “If we take dedicated action, both locally for adaptation and globally for mitigation, I believe that we can still leave a positive legacy and build a safer environment for future generations,” Chris said. But still, the new normal makes Chris nervous. “I have been a student of fire for a long time, but what I see now scares me. The intermix is growing each year, we have more political pressure to fight more fires, and climate change is working against.” Fire-fighters like Chris O’Brien have to deal with this new reality on a daily basis. They deliver an essential service to the public. But their jobs have become more dangerous.