Destined to Burn: Wildfires Threaten California -- Are We Prepared?

After the Camp Fire, several California news organizations, including the USA TODAY Network, came together to examine critical issues surrounding wildfires in the state.

The goal was to shed light on the problems, point to possible solutions and empower Californians to hold their leaders accountable and protect their own families and communities.

The result was the Destined to Burn series, stories written in partnership with The Sacramento Bee, Chico-Enterprise Record, Associated Press and the Record Searchlight’s sister papers in the USA TODAY Network.

Redding Record Searchlight

Capitol Games: Don't Expect Wildfire Help From Salem

A $6.8 million proposal to help prevent wildfires may go up in legislative flames, undercutting Southern Oregon’s hopes for extra relief from its summers of smoke.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said the legislation, part of a forest resiliency bill, would have provided additional funding for prevention efforts to thin forests around communities in Southern Oregon — prompted in part by the catastrophic wildfire that destroyed Paradise, California, last fall.

Both Golden’s and Marsh’s proposals are part of the Forest Fire and Resilience Investment Package that is still stuck in committee, though legislators hope to revive it if the Legislature can get back in session after Republican senators last week staged their second walk out.

Mail Tribune

How Environmental Analysis Inadvertently Drains the Forest Service Budget

U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said her agency was failing to meet the challenges of unhealthy forests and catastrophic wildfires. She admitted the agency is not reducing the risk, and “America’s forests are in crisis.”

The Forest Service took an important step forward by releasing proposed changes to modernize how the agency complies with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This environmental law, initially approved by Congress in 1969, requires federal agencies to report the potential environmental effects of proposed actions. Most agencies comply with this law without draining their financial and human resources, even for major infrastructure projects.

Changes are needed because the Forest Service has been negatively influenced by anti-forestry activism and the real and perceived threat of litigation over NEPA compliance. Consequently, the agency developed a risk-averse culture, requiring its people to spend more time preparing paperwork when they should be actively managing and mitigating the threats to multiple-use public lands, especially those that have been identified as suitable for timber harvests.

The Hill

Alberta wildfires linked to climate change

As another extreme fire season starts with more people on the run, scientists say they're already seeing signs that climate change is playing a role again. Recent fires have been connected to climate change in two separate research papers published earlier this year by scientists with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

A study by federal scientists into British Columbia's 2017 wildfire season found the area burned was seven to 11 times larger than it would have been without human influences on the climate. Extreme high temperatures combined with dry conditions increased the likelihood of wildfire ignition and spread, the report says.

— CBC News

Stanford researchers explain what to expect from wildfire season

“In the long run, tackling climate change will be essential. If the world continues to warm to the levels expected with high emissions through the 21st century, it is hard to imagine successfully managing wildfire risk in California,” said Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “In parallel with tackling climate change, communities can do a great deal to decrease the ladder fuels that increase the risk of catastrophic fires. Prescribed burns can be a safe and effective way to decrease fuels, especially when the accumulations are not too large. Where fuels are so dense that prescribed burns are not feasible, forest thinning is a necessary first step. In some cases, the material removed by thinning may be suitable as fuel for power generation or other uses. Many forested areas that have seen a decrease in timber harvesting activity in recent decades may provide economic opportunities from investments in fuel reduction.”

— Stanford News

Oregon Utility Announces Wildfire Prevention Policies In Wake Of California Tragedies

Pacific Power plans to implement “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” if dangerous weather is expected in high fire risk areas. If the power is cut before the wind blows down lines, there’s less risk of fire. This and other new policies, announced Thursday, include clearing vegetation around power lines and poles, increasing inspections at facilities, training their field crews in wildfire suppression, and installing local weather stations to help identify high fire risk days.

Electricity providers have been under increased scrutiny since a number of wildfires in California were linked to downed power lines during windstorms, improperly maintained power stations, and areas where brush had grown too close to electrical infrastructure.

— Oregon Public Broadcasting

The 50 Oregon towns most threatened by wildfire clustered around Bend and Medford

Communities around the Rogue Valley in Southwest Oregon and towns near Bend in Central Oregon have a disproportionally high chance of seeing home destruction from wildfire compared to the rest of the state. 

The top three communities listed — and 16 of the top 25 — were all near the Rogue and Illinois valleys. All totaled, Medford, Grants Pass, Ashland and the smaller surrounding towns had more than 105,000 housing units exposed to wildfire.

— Statesman Journal

Firefighters brace for tough Pacific Northwest wildfire season

Experts predict the upcoming wildfire season will have higher risks of big, costly fires. That’s coming after 2018′s record-setting fire season, which racked up wildfire-fighting bills of $514.6 million. The above-average concern focuses on northwest Oregon and western Washington in June, then includes all of western Oregon and eastern Washington by July, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

About 15% of Oregon is facing abnormally dry conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most of the dryness surrounds the Columbia River Gorge and northwest Oregon.

A U.S. Forest Service study found communities in southern and central Oregon are most at risk from forest fires. The study ranked each community in Washington and Oregon on its susceptibility to wildfire risk. The top five included Medford and Bend.

— OregonLive

Change To Oregon Smoke Rules Seeing Early Results For Prescribed Burns

The state of Oregon regulates prescribed fire smoke in much of the state – including burns on federal land. The regulations are there to protect population centers, places that have had air quality issues in the past, and viewsheds in natural protected areas.

But it appears this barrier is starting to crumble.

“We had smoke impacts in our communities from wildfires that, by orders of magnitude, were more destructive to air quality and human health than anything we see from prescribed burns,” said Amanda Rau, who pushed for the changes. Rau is a prescribed fire burn boss for the Nature Conservancy and chair of the Oregon Prescribed Fire Council.

In fact, 93% of all unhealthy air quality days in Oregon communities in 2018 were caused by wildfire.

Earlier this year, the Oregon Departments of  Environmental Quality and Forestry approved an update to the state smoke management rules. Now, instead of forbidding all smoke from reaching towns, prescribed burners can drop a modest amount of smoke into communities without fear of being shut down.

— Oregon Public Broadcasting

With Colorado's Drought Over, Will Prescribed Fire Be a Priority?

After a big winter and wet spring, one might think Colorado has the perfect conditions for increased prescribed burning. Turns out it's more complicated than that.

Some forest managers in Colorado see an opportunity to increase burning this year. Kevin Grant, deputy state fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Colorado, echoes many of Donaldson’s comments about the challenges of burning when it’s wet, but says his teams have already made good progress this year. “I don’t know that our strategy has changed,” Grant says, “But we’ve had more opportunities to burn this spring.”

According to Grant, BLM crews burned about 800 acres in Colorado in May 2019, whereas land was so dry in May 2018 that his teams weren’t able to put down any prescribed fire.

However, experts point out that prescribed burning on some other lands isn’t as simple as taking flame to the forest. Prescribed burns may take months, sometimes years, to plan. And wet weather isn’t always a good thing. “You’d think we’d be trying to do more prescribed fire when this opportunity comes up with a wet spring, but there are other issues we’re contending with,” says Gabe Donaldson of The Nature Conservancy in Colorado.

— 5280, Denver’s Mile High Magazine