California’s tragic fires remind us that nothing human can stop a wildfire being pushed by headlong winds into dry fuel.
The raging Camp Fire in northern California has destroyed nearly 8,000 structures, most of them homes, and killed at least 48 people, some as they fled along clogged highways. Hundreds of others remain missing. Photos of the destroyed city of Paradise, population 27,000, recall Hiroshima.
Each year, South Dakota works hard to reduce the fuels available to fires at the woodland-urban interface, the front yard of potential tragedy. These efforts — along with prescribed burns — greatly diminish the chances of runaway fires harming people unless Mother Nature bends the odds with a mix of drought and frontal winds. That scenario played out locally in the Alabaugh Canyon Fire of July 7, 2007, when a 10,324-acre blaze roared out of a canyon near Hot Springs to kill one person, destroy 33 homes and send two firefighters to a Colorado burn center.
Strong winds help lift flames to the forest crown, where they become a juggernaut. In California, strong winds have driven flames across eight lanes of freeway. No firefighting effort can stand before that kind of moving inferno.
Climate change has increased the odds of these disasters. Warming temperatures increase the frequency and duration of drought, bake fuels and add to the severity of storms. The average number of U.S. acres burned by wildfires has doubled over the level from 30 years ago. People may argue over the causes of global warming, but longtime firefighters know in their gut that the blazes are getting bigger and nastier. The cost of fighting wildfires is also growing.
Rising fire suppression costs over the past three decades nearly destroyed the U.S. Forest Service's budget. Overall funding for the agency, which does most of the federal firefighting, remained flat while fire suppression costs grew dramatically.
Earlier this year Congress passed a fire funding fix changing the way the federal government pays for large fires in expensive fire seasons, but that doesn’t affect the underlying issues of climate change or the expanding urban interface. We can expect the fire problem will grow.
Each year, states like South Dakota must fight for a share of the less than $400 million in federal funding available to reduce fuels at the urban interface. Fuel reduction requires constant attention. Droughts are not infrequent here, and the pine bark beetle increases the fuel available for fires daily.
South Dakota has a strong, experienced firefighting force. There is good cooperation among agencies to quickly mobilize crews and equipment. The Great Plains Wildland Fire Protection Agreement of a few decades ago allows us to rely on help from the region when federal resources are stretched thin.
But eventually, drought and wind will align to drive flames up a populated Black Hills canyon. The outcome will be all the worse if the flames find a welcoming path all the way to our front doors.
As the costs and demands of firefighting increase out west, South Dakota must remain vigilant that the means of reducing hazardous fuels remains funded. Our lives and our homes will depend upon it.