There was a hiking trail I used to run on with my husky back when I was training for judo. It was one of the important running trails for the high school cross country team, and depending on what route you took ranged from arduous to pleasant. Regardless of what shape I was in, I would always try to take the more difficult route that went straight up the large hill (Weir Hill as its known), which while adding to difficulty had the added benefit of taking me through some of the open fields that occupied this little patch of nature the town had set aside for the residents to enjoy. Along this route was a sign that explained how the habitats on the hill and the surrounding area had been shaped by fire. Controlled burns would occasionally be performed in order to ensure the natural processes that kept the species going in this patch of wilderness continued. These small controlled fires are in stark contrast to the large raging fires that are dominating headlines and causing massive damage. Wildfires have become an issue that touches on everything from climate change to government spending.
As the fires across the West rage, elite firefighting groups are being pushed to their limits. The recent massive fire in Yosemite, while human in origin, is demonstrative of how damaging an issue this can be. The problem isn’t that wildfires happen, and in fact it’s taken some time to come to the conclusion that they are integral to North American ecosystems, it’s that they are happening in greater number and intensity. The difficult thing is that wildfires are a natural part of much of North American ecology. The field known as “fire ecology” is dedicated to understanding the role that fires play in relevant ecosystems. An ecosystem is a unit of nature in which living and nonliving substances interact, in an exchange of materials between living and nonliving parts. There are species that have specifically evolved to what is known as the fire regime of these systems (the pattern and frequency of wildfires in an area). For example some species of trees utilize an evolutionary strategy where the heat from the fires effectively activates growth in seeds. The impacts of climate change increase the complexity of the issue.
Climate change has a myriad of impacts on this issue. From the straight forward idea that increasing temperatures increase the likelihood of fires, to the extremely mischievous bark beetle problem. The bark beetle problem is a particularly interesting example, as with warmer winters, these native pests do not die off in the same numbers they typically would, therefore increasing the virulence of their presence to North American forests. The beetles attack and kill trees. The result is there is a much larger number of dead and dry timber available to burn. Of course issues surrounding action on climate change in congress has been covered ad nauseum, this is yet another issues that the over abundance of CO2 has weaved itself into.
On the topic of politics, spending on this issue has been on the rise. While the rim fire has dominated headlines in recent weeks, fires in Montana, Oregon, and Idaho has pushed the total expenditure to over a billion dollars. As yet another fiscal showdown in Washington looms, previous cuts to the federal firefighting budget are already causing damage. With threats of a government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act, the law of unintended consequences comes into play. With issues that involve the real possibility of damage to people and property such as natural disasters, big talk of cutting government resources lacks the nuance to understand there are times when having well funded government initiatives is not just a luxury, but important.
The wildfire issue is a complex problem from the perspectives of ecology, climate change, and politics. Understanding how fire regimes work and their role in North American ecosystems is an important part of understanding the foundation of the issue. The role climate change plays further highlights the need to engage that issue. All in all though, the role further government cuts could play in hurting our ability to fight these fires must be understood. The bravado in which politicians speak of shrinking government down, is frustrating, especially when you have problems that threaten people, property, and the public good. With any luck, when it comes time to make a deal this fall, they hold off on anymore cuts to our ability to fight wild fires.