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The death toll from two large blazes in Northern California has jumped to five, fire officials announced Thursday, as 2015 marches steadily toward becoming the most destructive wildfire season in recorded history.
The Valley Fire, located just north of Napa County's vineyards, and the Butte Fire, southeast of Sacramento, have consumed more than 800 homes, charred 145,000 acres, and forced at least 20,000 people to flee their homes. They're two of more than 7,000 blazes this year to break out across the drought-ravaged state, which received its lowest recorded snowpack in half a millennium this winter — setting up the summer tinder box.
But it's not just California; practically all of the West is in some form of drought, and 2015 has seen temperature records fall like dominoes: last month was Earth's warmest August on record, and July was it's hottest month ever. It was the warmest May ever, too, and the entire January-to-April period has never been hotter than it was in 2015.
That combination of dry, hot conditions has sent much of the coast up in flames. The largest wildfire to ever strike the temperate rainforests of Washington State's Olympic National Park, one of the dampest parts of the entire continent, has been burning since May. A record heat wave fueled hundreds of blazes in Canada in July, sending drifting smoke as far south as Atlanta. And in Alaska, amidst its second worst fire season on record, the state's mid-interior Boreal forests burned at rates unseen for 10,000 years, raising concerns that increased heat could unlock a carbon bomb – the methane rich permafrost that sits below 95 percent of the state.
For the whole United States, 2015 is already a historic wildfire season, one of only four years — all since 2006 — to top 9 million acres burned. And with weeks to go in a fire season that typically peaks in October, we're on pace to surpass 2006's record of 9.9 million acres.
Climate change, which is increasing temperatures and intensifying the drought, is at play, but so too are fire management tactics. For the vast majority of history, wildfires routinely ignited, burned through the most easily combustible material, and extinguished as part of a natural cycle. This regular clearing of fuel actually makes the largest and most destructive fires less likely to break out.
But in 1910 came the 'Big Blowup' and, with it, major changes to American wildfire suppression tactics. In just two days, fires raced through 3 million acres in Montana, Idaho, and Washington, killing 85 people. In response, official strategy became to suppress fires as quickly as possible. By 1935 a so-called "10 am policy" was instituted, stating that all fires reported should be gone by that time the next day. It took until the 1960s for the science to turn in favor of letting fires naturally burn, and firefighting policies have slowly caught up since then.
But according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Science, we're not adopting the "let it burn" philosophy nearly enough. Ninety-eight percent of fires today are still suppressed before they reach 300 acres, but the 2 percent that escape containment account for 97 percent of fire fighting costs and total area burned, said a team of scientists led by Malcolm North of the University of California, Davis.
The way we pay when fires strike enhances that imbalance, the authors said, as "fire suppression is steadfastly financed through dedicated congressional appropriations" and supplemented by emergency funds. Often to make up the difference, in a vicious cycle, officials must raid the funds meant for the very programs that help suppress future fires, like prescribed burns and clearing brush.
"It's very clear that our current policies aren't working," said Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington professor of environmental and forest sciences and co-author of the paper. "We need to change our policies to recognize the use of more prescribed and natural fire to deal with the conditions we're seeing in our forests today as well as to greatly accelerate restoration of more resilient conditions in accessible forests that have been dramatically altered over the past century."
This year more than half of the Forest Service's entire budget, just over $5 billion, will be used for fire suppression, compared to only 16 percent as recently as twenty years ago. Over a span of just a few decades, conditions have changed immensely and they're set to keep doing so: On average, fires burn more than six times the amount of area today than they did between 1970-1986 and are four times as frequent. In the United States, the amount of area burned by wildfires is expected to double by 2050.
"What we've done over the last 100 years plus with fire suppression in these frequent fire forests and landscapes is dramatically altered them and consequently their behavior," Franklin said. "We were going to have a 'come to Jesus' time one way or another, but climate change of course is almost certainly exacerbating what's going on."
The authors make several suggestions for improving fire management. Officials could create new zoning plans in national forests, like Canada does, with fire management strategies tailored to each one — think mechanically thinned forests near homes, while more remote spots are allowed to burn. EPA regulations governing smoke that make prescribed burns more difficult could be relaxed, and strategies that emphasize healthy forest management could make a return.
"You'd just have a group of people that could be trained, move around the country, and then actually manage fires for ecological benefit," said UC Berkeley Fire Scientist Scott Stephens, a co-author of the paper. "We used to have those a few years ago, but they were eliminated because of budget cuts and emphasis on suppression."
But for true change to come, according to the study's authors, the public will need to demand it.
"Management reform in the United States has failed, not because of policy, but owing to lack of coordinated pressure sufficient to overcome entrenched agency disincentives to working with fire," the authors wrote.
Watch the VICE News documentary Flooding Fields in California's Drought here:
Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom