By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
We fear fire, and for good reasons. Wildfires can erupt almost anywhere and destroy property, kill individuals, and wreak havoc on our nation’s critical infrastructure. These fires do not discriminate; they have a mind of their own. Once a wildfire starts, the rush is on to contain the blaze before it can spread.
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California’s Camp Fire Was State’s Deadliest and Most Destructive Ever
Many recall last year’s Camp Fire that was not contained for over two weeks last November. It was California’s deadliest and most destructive fire on record, killing 85 people and burning 153,000 acres. It devastated the town of Paradise, destroying approximately over 14,500 residences and commercial buildings. As a result, the town lost over 90 percent of its population, shrinking from over 26,000 to slightly over 2,000 residents.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) electrical transmission lines were the cause of the Camp Fire. A live wire broke free of a 99-year-old, 100-foot tower that the utility company considered a quarter century past its “useful life.”
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), people cause as much as 90 percent of the wildfires across our nation from unattended campfires, burning debris, negligently discarded cigarettes and intentional acts of arson. Lightning or volcanic lava flow cause the remaining 10 percent.
Famous and Not-So-Famous Fires of 1871
The worst wildfire in our nation’s history occurred on October 8, 1871, in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, a logging town. The fire killed perhaps as many as 2,400 people in Peshtigo, and the smaller surrounding towns in northeast Wisconsin, The fire burned 1.2 million acres that night, an area roughly the size of Connecticut. The source of the fire remains unknown.
Most people do not know about this disaster because of another conflagration that occurred on the same night, the Great Chicago Fire that killed an estimated 300 people, destroyed over 17,000 structures and left approximately 100,000 residents homeless.
Japan’s Attempt to Create Forest Fires on the Pacific Coast
Wanting to retaliate after the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and other Japanese cities, Japanese war planners decided to cause panic along the Pacific Coast by starting forest fires that would divert resources from the war effort. Americans living along the West Coast feared wildfires because many of the firefighters were in the military.
Between November 1944 and April 1945, the Japanese launched over 9,000 high-altitude, hydrogen-filled balloons designed to cross the 5,000 miles of Pacific Ocean. The balloons carried incendiary devices and 30-pound high-explosive bombs.
The Japanese effort was a military failure, although over 300 balloons landed in the United States, one as far as Grand Rapids, Michigan. Six individuals, a reverend’s pregnant wife and five children from their Sunday school were killed by a balloon that exploded near Bly, Oregon. The military censored reports about the balloon bombs for months.
One of the deadliest forest fires occurred on August 5, 1949. Fifteen smokejumpers parachuted into a blazing Montana wilderness. Two hours later, all but three of the men were dead or mortally wounded when the wind-blown flames changed course and engulfed them. Author Norman MacClean’s award-winning “Young Men and Fire” is a compelling account of that disastrous day.
U.S. Forest Service Weeks Law the Beginning of Federal and State Fire Control Cooperation
The U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905. After the 1910 “Big Blowup” forest fires that burned over three million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington in two days, Congress passed the Weeks Law in 1911. The law marked the beginning of federal and state fire control cooperation. The 1923 Clarke-McNary Act authorized additional federal funds for fire control.
In late 1944, the Forest Service introduced Smokey Bear. By 1952, Smokey Bear had gained so much commercial appeal that Congress passed the Smokey Bear Act removing the cartoon character from the public domain so royalties and fees for its image went to wildfire prevention education.
Research in the 1960s highlighted the positive role fires play in forest ecology. So the Forest Service changed its firefighting policy to let forest fires burn when and where appropriate. Since the 1990s, the Forest Service has also taken into account the growth of suburbia and what is known as the wildland-urban interface in its firefighting protocols. Additionally, fires have grown in size and ferocity.
From 2007 to 2017, wildfire losses cost the nation over $5.1 billion. In 2018, the total cost of the California Woolsey Fire is expected to be between $3 billion and $5 billion; the Camp Fire total is likely to be between $8.5 billion and $10.5 billion.
According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), the number of acres burned annually varies depending on weather conditions. The worst year in the past 40 years was 2017, when there were 71,499 known wildfires that burned more than 10 million acres.
“Beginning October 6 and continuing until October 25, eight counties in Northern California were hit by a devastating outbreak of wildfires which led to at least 23 fatalities, burned 245,000 acres and destroyed over 8,700 structures,” III reported.
From January to July 30 of this year, there have been 25,619 wildfires burning 3.2 million acres compared to 37,591wildfires in the same period of 2018 burning 4.8 million acres.
The Verisk Wildfire Risk Analysis, using data from the 2010 U.S. Census, determined that there are 4.5 million homes at high or extreme risk of wildfires in the 13 most wildfire-prone states:
- California – 2,048,800
- Texas – 715,300
- Colorado – 366,200
- Arizona – 234,600
- Idaho – 171,200
- Washington – 154,900
- Oklahoma – 152,900
- Oregon – 148,800
- Utah – 133,000
- Montana – 133,000
- New Mexico – 127,700
- Nevada – 63,500
- Wyoming – 35,500
Federal Budgets Hamper Fire Suppression Efforts
With the growth of the number and size of wildfires, the cost to suppress them has also grown. These fires account for about 47 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service annual budget of $2.25 billion for wildland fire management.
Under the Consolidated Appropriations Act that goes into effect in fiscal year (FY) 2020, the Forest Service’s wildland fighting suppression budget is just a bit more than $1 billion. There are caps on accessing additional funds needed from the Forest Service’s budget if this amount is exhausted.
Since wildfires ignore administrative boundaries, the Department of the Interior (DOI) also has funding for fire suppression in its budget.
Starting in FY 2020 through FY 2027, the Forest Service and the DOI would have a combined additional funding of $2.25 billion available if the suppression funding is exhausted and increases by $100 million each year. The Forest Service would receive $1.9 billion and the Department of the Interior $300 million.
Alaska’s Peat Fires Have Burned over Two Million Acres This Year
In 2018, there were 367 fires in Alaska, many of them traditional forest wildfires that burnt over 410,000 acres. This year, the Alaskan blazes have burned over two million acres. Most of that loss is due to peat fires. As a result, “the Arctic is experiencing its worst wildfire season on record,” Smithsonian.com reports.
Peat is made of decomposing organic matter that hardens into coal when enough pressure is applied. Since the peatlands can be up to 90 percent water, fires are infrequent and the presence of these areas helps prevent the spread of wildfires.
“While peat fires may not look like significant fires, they are the largest fires on earth,” Guillermo Rein, a peat fire researcher at Britain’s Imperial College, told Ensia.
Rein said “detecting and acting on peat fires early is ‘overwhelmingly important’ because if they become too big no other no water supply other than rain is sufficient to fight them. But early detection and action are also overwhelmingly difficult.”
In the vast Alaskan wilderness, peat fires can be challenging to locate. They slowly smolder at a low temperature and can spread underground. They also produce little flame but a lot of smoke. Nature puts these fires out through sustained heavy rain.
What Can Be Done To Prevent Wildfires
Smokey Bear’s catchphrase, “Only you can prevent wildfires” remains as true today as it was 75 years ago. Wildfire prevention is crucial and an essential aspect of our care of the world around us.
To help prevent wildfires, we must:
- Be vigilant in our care of campfires, bonfires, and burning of yard waste or rubbish
- Not toss burning or smoldering objects away, such as cigarettes
- Take proper precautions when using any type of combustible material, such as gasoline, oil, sparklers or fireworks
- Not park hot vehicles in dry grass
While these are things that every citizen can do, the federal government must allocate more money not only to fighting wildfires, but also to preventing them. Better forest management would prevent wildfires.
Allowing forests to thin themselves naturally, as well as manually clearing out forest debris, is one solution.
By thinning forests for less tree density and undergrowth, wildfires would not burn with the intensity we see today that create both ecological and economic disasters.
According to a 2016 Forest Service news release, following an aerial survey in May 2016, the total number of dead trees was over 102 million on 7.7 million acres of California’s drought-stricken forests. “In 2016 alone, 62 million trees have died, representing more than a 100 percent increase in dead trees across the state from 2015. Millions of additional trees are weakened and expected to die in the coming months and years.”
The Forest Service added, “These dead and dying trees continue to elevate the risk of wildfire, complicate our efforts to respond safely and effectively to fires when they do occur, and pose a host of threats to life and property across California.”
About a third of the 21 million acres of forestland that it manages needs immediate restoration, the Forest Service estimated. Nationwide, over 58 million acres of state and privately owned forests need immediate work. The crux of this is that it would require enormous spending.
As the Forest Service said in 2016, “USDA has made restoration work and the removal of excess fuels a top priority, but until Congress passes a permanent fix to the fire budget, we can’t break this cycle of diverting funds away from restoration work to fight the immediate threat of the large unpredictable fires caused by the fuel buildups themselves.”
Where will this money come from? With the estimated cost of just two of the California fires last year likely to exceed $11 billion, funding could come from a combination of private and business ventures. This would be money well spent.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.
Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.