Land management key to US wildfire problem

Sunset into the Colorado fire by Brian Emory
 
By David Singh

GENEVA, 29 June - The two largest and most destructive forest fires in Colorado’s history yesterday prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to issue a disaster declaration for the state.

The President’s declaration makes federal funds available for emergency protective measures for areas affected by the High Park fire in northern Colorado and the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs. Obama will also visit the state today to view the damage. Containment of the High Park Fire, burning since 9 June after lightning struck a tree on private land and now on its 19th day is now at 75 percent.

The U.S Forest Service has announced that fire crews are officially now in a "mop up" stage of the fire which has burned a total of 87,284 acres (219 square kms). The catastrophe has killed one person, destroyed 257 homes. The cost of the fire to date is $33.5 million.

Ricardo Mena, Head of the UN Americas Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) warned against using immediate reports on costs as a true indicator of the damage by wildfire. “The figures that are reported are usually only costs related to the suppression of a wildfire. The economic impact of wildfires is far-reaching. Large fires also do measurable short- and long-term damage to public and private equity and resources.”

According to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC) in the US, analysts, government officials, and the media have recently drawn increasing attention to the escalating frequency, severity, and costs over and above fire suppression associated with large-scale forest wildfire – including losses of human lives, homes, pets, crops, livestock and environmental damage. Research shows the need for improved cost estimates.

The Waldo Canyon Fire wildfire, raging at the edge of Colorado Springs forcing thousands to flee and destroying an estimated 346 homes this week, yesterday became the most destructive in state history according to officials. The fire, dubbed “a monster” by Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown, has taken one life and charred 18,000 acres (41.8 kms) in the shadow of the Pikes Peak mountaintop. The number of evacuees stands at 32,000 while containment of the fire is currently at 15 percent.

"This is the worst fire season in the history of Colorado," Governor John Hickenlooper said after touring the fire zone. Colorado currently accounts for several of the 29 large active wildfires being fought across the country. The bulk of them in seven western states - Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and California - according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

A wildfire in eastern Montana has scorched 19,000 acres and forced 600 residents to leave their homes. In Utah, the fast-moving Wood Hollow Fire, about 100 miles south of Salt Lake City, has scorched more than 46,190 acres of rolling hills.

“The question that begs to be asked is whether forests are dangerous or whether humans are responsible? And I think we know the answer,” observed Ricardo Mena, Head of the UN Americas Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

“The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been telling us that most fires are caused by people. The list of human-induced causes include land clearing and other agricultural activities, maintenance of grasslands for livestock management, extraction of non-wood forest products, industrial development, resettlement, hunting, negligence and arson”, said Mena.

According to FAO, there is evidence from some regions that the trend is towards more fires affecting a larger area and burning with greater severity. Also, the risk of fire may be increasing with climate change in association with changes in land-use and lack of institutional inputs for sustainable forest and fire management. The main contributing elements of mega wildfires were identified as drought, fire meteorology, accumulation of fuel and fire prone landscapes, often caused by lack of appropriate land management.

“Preventive land management is critical. Housing areas should not be established in regions with fire-prone vegetation. Land use planning has to combine varied types of vegetation in a landscape where there are natural firebreaks such as open land,” said Mena.

In the past two decades, a quarter million people have moved into Colorado’s red zones – the parts of the state most at risk to wildfire. In some counties, more than 90 percent of the population lives in a red zone. And as the number of people in red zones has exploded, so has the number of fires. Public policies or lack of them regarding both population growth and forest management are adding to the wildfire problem.

“The fact that the bill for protecting private homes is borne by taxpayers at large removes the incentives for landowners … to take responsibility for their own protection and ensure homes are constructed and landscaped in ways that reduce wildfire risks,” reported the Office of Inspector General U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The cost of the four major US wildfires are: Oakland Fire, California in October 1991 - $2.68 billion; The Cedar Fire, California in October 2003 - $1.24 billion; Witch Fire, California in October 2007 - $1.14 billion; Old Fire in California in October 2003 - $1.14 billion; and Los Angeles County Fire, California in November 1993 - $559 million.
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The Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction will take place in 2015 The Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction will take place in 2015.
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