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article imageWildfires in U.S. are a growing national emergency

By Karen Graham     Jul 31, 2017 in Environment
The U.S. wildfire season has gotten off to an early and intense start, scorching more than 5.2 million acres since the beginning of the year. There are 47 very large fires burning across nine states and they should be considered a national emergency.
Wildfire season in the West starts earlier ‚ 105 days earlier than it did in the 1970s, while funding for firefighting has topped $1.0 billion in 12 of the last 15 years. However, these two factors, alone, don't begin to address the true economic, environmental, and societal impacts of wildfires today.
Five large wildfires (those of 1,000 acres or more) are raging across California. The largest fire is the Detwiler fire near Yosemite National Park, which has burned more than 80,000 acres since it started on July 16. While it is now 75 percent contained, it has destroyed dozens of structures, including 63 homes.
ASHES: The remains of a parking lot and surrounding buildings in the city of Lower Lake  Calif.  are...
ASHES: The remains of a parking lot and surrounding buildings in the city of Lower Lake, Calif., are shown after the Clayton fire swept through town, destroying scores of businesses and homes.
State of California/Wikimedia Commons
Montana currently has 14 large fires burning, including the biggest wildfire in the country, the Lodgepole Complex Fire, a series of smaller fires that merged into one huge fire. This fire is being contained, although it has scorched over 270,000 acres, much of it rangeland, displacing thousands of cattle and burning numerous structures.
Oregon has seven large fires burning, while Nevada has six and Idaho five. Scorching temperatures, along with dry conditions have fueled these fires which have already burned 2.0 million more acres than at this same time last year.
Robin Broyles, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center, explained that a very wet winter meant grasslands were ripe with fuel and when the hot and dry weather hit, the grasslands became a tinderbox. A 2016 analysis shows that the yearly number of large wildfires has tripled since the 1970s and the number of acres burned is six times higher.
Tree torching on the Whitewater Fire in Oregon on the Willamette National Forest in Oregon on July 2...
Tree torching on the Whitewater Fire in Oregon on the Willamette National Forest in Oregon on July 27, 2017.
Forest Service_NIFC
How do we calculate the true costs of wildfires?
Using Montana as an example, the state's $65 million fire fund has already been depleted by a quarter, and if the fire season turns out to be as bad as the 2013 wildfire season, when Montana spent $57 million on fire suppression, the state may end up having little or no money in its budget for wildfires next year.
Fire suppression - the actual cost of fighting a fire is but a fraction of the costs associated with a wildfire. A true accounting has to consider long-term and complex costs, including impacts to watersheds, ecosystems, infrastructure, businesses, individuals, and the local and national economy.
Wildfires in BC.
Wildfires in BC.
British Columbia Government
According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), these costs specifically include "property losses (insured and uninsured), post-fire
impacts (such as flooding and erosion), air and water quality damages, health care costs, injuries, and fatalities, lost revenues (to residents evacuated by the fire and to local businesses), infrastructure shutdowns (such as highways, airports, and railroads), and a host of ecosystem service costs that may extend into the distant future."
On Sunday, Digital Journal reported on the impact of the wildfires in British Columbia, Canada to the timber and lumber industry in the province and the long-term effects that reach all the way to home builders in the U.S.
And even though the Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resources says it won't be able to determine the full impact on the timber industry until after the flames are extinguished, like the BLM points out, the true costs in all the different sectors of the economy are going to be extraordinary.
Finding sustainable solutions
Total wildfire costs range anywhere from two to 30 times greater than the reported suppression costs. And the BLM points out that Improved awareness of the complete costs of wildfires will enrich our search for sustainable solutions. This means we need improved data collection by government agencies, as well as increased funding for research and development (R & D) within the U.S. Forest Service, with the focus on long-standing data gaps.
Yes, there are multiple factors influencing the increase and intensity of wildfires, not just in the U.S. and Canada, but across the world, including climate change, encroachment due to population growth, and tree diseases, to name a few. But here's something to think about - A study published in October 2016 found that "rising temperatures accounted for nearly half of the increase in acres burned, as they helped to dry out forests and extend the length of the fire season."
More about Wildfires, US, economic impact, Climate change, Federal Government
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