The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Editorials

July 5, 2013

Our View: Wildfires spark need to adapt

Why it matters Change is upon us and rather than look for blame let's work on adapting our practices

The wildfires scorching the West this summer have sparked the debate among scientists, environmentalists, small government advocates and even firefighters themselves.

Is man-made climate change at the root, as was inferred by President Obama, who said its effects mean “firefighters are braving longer wildfire seasons” because of it?

Conservative land-use advocates argue that the federal government has neglected its proper management of forests and wildland producing “tinderbox conditions.”

They cite environmental pushes to restrict road-building in some forests inhibiting the clearing of dead stands of trees as well as reaching wildfires. This is especially true after beetle infestations killed many stands of forest which environmentalists argue is caused by hotter temperatures.

Environmentalists argue that harvesting affects biodiversity and tend to favor certain trees over others adversely affecting the animal species that may depend on such things as old-growth forests. And roads for extraction cause erosion and fragment the landscape.

Now the political argument that sequestration is to blame for the lack of adequate fire prevention. It reportedly cut about 7.5 percent out of the Forest Service’s budget, nearly half of which is spend on fighting wildfires.

However, experts have been reluctant to link the tragic loss of 19 elite firefighters in Arizona to budget cuts. Rather they cite shifting winds that can impact any team fighting a wildfire.

There is acknowledgement from firefighters that that technology to fight forest and brush fires has changed little in decades while drought, human encroachment on western lands and higher temperatures have increased the challenges.

Bill Stewart, co-director of the University of California Center for Fire Research and Outreach said with a little more “innovation out there we might have learned something in the past 10 years,” Stewart said. “There’s very little research and development in firefighting. It’s a very conservative area, and historically it’s been vastly underfunded.”

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