Southwest wildfires, which have grown exponentially in size over the past decade, need to be harnessed for the benefits they create on the landscape, fire researchers said in Tucson this week.
“We basically know that wildfire is going to treat more of our landscape than anything else,” said Andi Thode, an assistant professor of forestry at Northern Arizona University.
Thode is lead researcher for the Southwest Fire Science Consortium, which held a three-day meeting in Tucson this week to address forest resiliency in the face of climate change and megafires.
More than 100 scientists, land managers and firefighters from government, academic and nongovernmental agencies gathered to brainstorm strategies for making forests resilient as big, hot fires threaten their very existence.
“More fire, not less” is one answer, the researchers said.
Land managers have to realize and the public needs to accept that the landscape is already changing and will change even more in the years to come, said Thode.
Treating and burning the landscape regularly, and using natural fire to accomplish those same ends will allow those changes to occur gradually.
The alternatives, said fire ecologist Don Falk, are more megafires and more abrupt changes.
The hot, damaging fires of recent years have altered forest composition in places, and those alterations could be permanent, said Falk, professor of natural resources at the University of Arizona.
In the Santa Catalina Mountains, oaks and grass replaced conifers in some areas severely burned by the Bullock and Aspen fires of 2002 and 2003.
Similar replacement is happening in areas of the Chiricahua Mountains after the 2011 Horseshoe 2 Fire, he said.
Rising temperatures may thwart the eventual return of plant communities, he said.
“Maybe it’s been replaced by a community that is better adapted to the climate that’s coming,” said Falk, who urged a redefinition of forest restoration that recognizes a warming world and inevitable changes in ecosystems.
Hard choices lie ahead for communities, the researchers said, about how much change we can tolerate, what we want to protect at all costs and whether we can actually do anything about it.
Falk, in his keynote address to the group, showed a photo of an entire watershed burned to ash in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico during the Las Conchas Fire in 2011. No mature trees survived, no seed source remains and the soil is washing away. That change, he said, “is essentially irreversible.”
Homes and communities that lie within or on the border of our forested areas also need to adapt if they are to be resilient in the changing climate, said Zander Evans, research director of the Forest Guild.
He said those on the wildland-urban interface need to accept the fact of wildfire and plan for it by hardening their homes against burning, providing defensible space and creating warning systems and evacuation plans.
Connie Millar, a paleoecologist with the Pacific Southwest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service, said her community in the Sierras of California is one of many that are moving “to where they don’t need firefighting resources, where a fire could burn through and the homes would be intact.”
Millar said communities near active volcanoes and in fault zones have learned to live with threat by developing warning systems and social structures to aid one another in emergencies. Forest communities need to do the same, she said.
The researchers also welcomed President Obama’s embrace of a new funding formula for fighting wildfires that would not rob prevention-and-treatment programs to pay firefighting costs.
Obama proposed earlier this week to finance emergency overspending on firefighting efforts through a designated emergency fund, rather than from the operating budgets of federal land managers in the departments of Interior and Agriculture.
Together, those departments have spent more than $1 billion stamping out fires each year since 2000. In three of those years, the cost exceeded $2 billion, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
“If we can redirect money from suppression to treatments, that can have a lot of benefit for communities,” said Evans.