FEATURE: Fire on the mountain

By on September 8, 2015
A fire burns on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. (Photo:Bridger-Teton National Forest)

A fire burns on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. (Photo:Bridger-Teton National Forest)

With the West ablaze, how long before the Tetons feel the heat?

Boise National Forest, Idaho – The wind kicks up; it’s a smoky day with limited visibility, causing an eerie haze to settle on the forest, painting the woods in Hemingway colors. Jackson local Thomas Hinkel braces himself for the day ahead. The sun has barely begun to shine as he and his Teton Crew of firefighters are digging in for a long day of fire containment.

Tools in hand they begin the process of brush clearing – a proactive step to tame what will turn into an 800-acre forest fire before their eyes.

Hinkel has found himself “on the green,” standing between the blaze and the spread of the flame nearly every day during the peak of fire season. He has faced eight fires this summer, moving from high-priority fire to high-priority fire, leaving others to contain the ones his troupe has managed to control.

From the start of 2015, the Forest Service has been gearing up for a summer of big burns. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell warned in May that this year’s forest fires would potentially consume an unprecedented amount of the Forest Service’s budget, and with near prophetic accuracy, reports from the United States Department of Agriculture confirm that for the first time, Wildlands Firefighting will command more than half of the Forest Service’s 2015 budget.

The Department of Agriculture projects that if forest fire budgeting is not adjusted, the Forest Service will spend 67 percent of its budget on forest fires by 2025, drastically reducing the Forest Service’s ability to fund the other invaluable services it provides. With this sharp diminishment in fiscal resources, programs such as managing the National Forests, funding and developing forest research, stemming illegal logging, and conserving migratory species’ habitats suffer the brunt of the expense seizures from forest fire maintenance.

This year the United States has lost nearly nine million acres of forest to wildfires – nearly triple the total wildfire deforestation for 2014. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there are currently 45 large-scale fires burning in the United States, burning approximately 1.8 million acres, leaving the Forest Service at Preparedness Level (PL) 5 most of the summer. PL-5 is the highest fire alert level the U.S. government can issue, meaning the United States is maxed out on manpower and resources. Fire season is predicted to rage on well into October, draining the Forest Service’s pocketbook even faster than predicted.

 Tidwell warns that this is the new normal. A scary thought as costs of wildlands firefighting have risen from $285 million in 1985 to nearly $1.9 billion in 2012. The United States has already spent more than $875 million dollars on wildfire management this year.

According to the Smithsonian Institute’s study on the correlation between climate change and forest fires, earlier springs, hotter summers, and drought conditions have all contributed extensively to the rising cost of fire control.

Wildlands, wild lives

The Teton Crew has seen the cost of escalating fires firsthand. Sweat streaks down Hinkel’s brow as he turns a shovel over in his hands. His beard is peppered with ash, and his voice is tired and dry, a sharp departure from his generally animated, upbeat tone.

“It’s been a long day, and I haven’t slept in my own bed in a month,” Hinkel begins.

Hinkel is approaching his mandatory two days rest after a 14-day stint in the field. Most days he is called into action by 5:30 a.m. to a start an 18-hour day of manual labor, essentially combatting thousands of acres of forest fire with a shovel.

“You rarely put fires out with water,” Hinkel said. “What really happens is you use a hand tool, and you dig it out. You pretty much just dig out this line between you and where the fire is moving. So you have the black, which is where the fire has burned everything up, then you have the green, where the fire hasn’t reached, and in between, you pull the green away, and hope when the fire hits dirt it dies.”

If the prospect of 18-hour days tilling the earth were not overwhelming enough, the heat of the fire and the draft of the smoke make the labor nearly unbearable.

“You’re just inhaling smoke for hours,” Hinkel said, his ashy voice hoarse from the practice. “You get headaches, and you’re not even really sure what’s causing it at that point: if it’s the smoke or the dehydration, or just any combination of those things. Everyone’s coughing. People have to bump out or just sit down to keep from passing out. Plus, you’re out in the wilderness, so if something goes down, you’d be in a lot of trouble. You have to get heli-vaced out in situations like that, making even little incidents a really big deal.”

Because of the additional risk brought about by isolation and proximity to danger, the Forest Service is incredibly cautious with their firefighters, but the hazards of the job make some risks unavoidable, and the urgency and importance of the tasks they face make efficiency of paramount importance. Proper staffing is nearly impossible to attain at the height of fire season, which exponentially compounds the problem.

“We’re understaffed, doing the work of a crew that should be double our size most of the time,” Hinkel said.

Even though 2015 marks the first year the Forest Service has spent more than half of its budget on wildfires, it still lacks manpower. The federal government has brought in the military, volunteers, and firefighters from Mexico, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to stem the flames, but an overwhelming sense persists.

Hinkel is currently battling his third fire in the past two weeks. “Sometimes we pinch the fire, which is where you cut right in front of the flames and dig it out down wind right in front of where the fire is spreading, and that’s when you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die.’ You’re just deep in the smoke. Other times, when you’ve cut the fire off and let it burn itself out of fuel, you’re in charge of crawling over the ash, literally just digging through it on your hands and knees until you find a hot spot, and once it’s burned you, you get some water – if you’re lucky enough to have some – and you douse it. Those spots are monitored, sometimes for years, because fires can be dormant, and then they just spring back up, so no one leaves fires alone until we’re sure they’re out.”

Heat on the horizon

Dr. Corinna Riginos is a research ecologist based out of the University of Wyoming that has done extensive work focused on the effects of climate change on Yellowstone National Park. The report she recently co-authored, “The Coming Climate,” on the possible impacts of climate change on the Tetons predicts terrible consequences, some already apparent, with compounding consequences surfacing in the near future.

“The best models of future climate conditions in this area show that the dry conditions that support frequent forest fires will occur much more frequently,” Riginos said. Historically, she explained, major fires in the Teton region have been infrequent. “But with a changing climate this is likely to switch to much more frequent fires — leaving the forests little time to recover. Some scientists are predicting that most forested areas will disappear and be replaced by shrubs and grasses.”

Some species of shrubs and bushes can sustain wildlife well, but Riginos explained that the predatory species of cheatgrass is the most likely to migrate northward with earlier springs and warmer summers.

“In our sagebrush habitats,” Riginos said, “another major concern is cheatgrass invasion. Cheatgrass has invaded many parts of the Intermountain West but is not very common in this region because of the cool climate. Warmer, drier conditions, however, would probably allow cheatgrass to spread. Cheatgrass is not a very useful forage species and often takes the place of native species that are important food for diverse wildlife, including sage grouse and elk.”

Other climate-related causes of deforestation are the pine beetles. “The most pressing cause of deforestation in the Teton region right now is pine beetles,” she said, “which are much more numerous because of warmer conditions.” However, if the trend of larger and more widespread forest fires continues, Riginos believes that forest fire destruction will become the larger threat.

In light of these threats, Riginos forecasts the consequences of climate change are not just the destruction of our forestlands, but a fiscal impact upon tourism due to loss of wildlife. “These changes could radically alter the look, scenic value, and ability of these habitats to support wildlife,” she cautioned.

In the end, Riginos encourages members of the valley, “to put politics aside and focus on what the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence tells us: that climate change is a clear and present danger and that we need to take action now to slow it or face some very serious consequences.”

Cowboy climate

The Yale Project on Climate Change has found that only 54 percent of Wyoming’s citizens believe climate change is real; making Wyoming citizens the second least concerned about the effects of climate change on the environment in the U.S. Coal-centric West Virginia takes the number one slot.

 Nationwide, Wyoming citizens are the least likely to believe that climate change is manmade, with only 42 percent of its citizens acknowledging its detrimental effects. Wyoming legislators have gone so far as to battle revamping science standards in public education recently, because there were inclusions about manmade climate change.

Governor Matt Mead, who refers to himself as a “climate skeptic,” announced in his keynote address to the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority in May that as Wyoming’s economy is dependent upon coal, it is in Wyoming’s and the world’s best interest to foster that resource to its fullest extent. According to the EPA, CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are the number one cause of climate change.

There is little debate in the scientific community as to whether or not the climate is changing as mega-drought conditions spread, summers last nearly 20 percent longer than they did just 30 years ago, and this past July marks the hottest month in recorded history.

The Tetons have seen this change firsthand. A study done by Discovery, supported by NASA technology, has logged that today snowmelt throughout Wyoming typically thaws two weeks earlier than it did in the 1970s.

According to a release from the EPA, warmer winters will cause further issues in the West as precipitation is more likely to fall as rain rather than snow, decreasing snow accumulation. Between smaller snow reserves and earlier snowmelt, the West is projected to suffer from severe flooding in the spring and dryer summers.

The EPA also projects that by the end of the century, snowmelt will start between 20 and 40 days earlier than it does today. This forecast will lend itself to intensified drought conditions, causing increased recovery time for forests ravaged by insects or burned by wildfires.

As Riginos said, without recovery time, the forests will disappear, and with it, indigenous wildlife.

Caption 2:A Firefighter burns a slash pile of dead and down wood to reduce the amount of wood on the forest floor for a wildfire to burn. (Photo:Bridger-Teton National Forest)

A Firefighter burns a slash pile of dead and down wood to reduce the amount of wood on the forest floor for a wildfire to burn. (Photo:Bridger-Teton National Forest)

Fires for Safety: the Upside of the Flames

Not all is lost, though. Dr. Kevin Krasnow, research and graduate faculty of the Teton Science Schools, spoke with The Planet about the study he and his colleagues are conducting to better understand the frequency and severity of historical fires in the Jackson Hole area. As a disturbance ecologist, Krasnow and his team are using tree rings, fire scar samples (when a tree is injured but not killed by a fire), and historical maps and photos to reconstruct how often forest fires occurred over the past 300 to 400 years, as well as the severity of these fires (what proportion of the trees were killed). This information will help managers better understand the fire regime under which the forests of Jackson Hole evolved and will give guidance on how to maintain forest resilience to future fires.

While data is still being processed, preliminary findings show that much of Jackson Hole’s forests, especially those at higher elevation, evolved with infrequent, high severity fires, like those experienced in Yellowstone and surrounding areas in 1988.  These fires only occur when environmental conditions allow for fire ignition and spread in these often dense, moist forests. Historically, this has been every 100 to 300 years. “We have tree species, like lodgepole pine and aspen that are well adapted to fires such as these,” Krasnow said, “and fires of that nature have in fact occurred in the past – just European-Americans had not been around to see it.”

Information from Krasnow’s study will help the National Park and Forest Service understand what, if any, forest types burned more frequently in the past and may have experienced increased tree density and fuel loads as a result of past fire suppression or forest management.  If certain forests types have a deficit of fire, they could be targeted for prescribed fire, mechanical fuel reduction, or priority areas to allow wildfires to burn unsuppressed.

The larger concern is that with climate change, high elevation forests in the Greater Yellowstone Region, that are adapted to infrequent high-severity fires, will face increased fire frequency that they are incapable of sustaining.

According to Krasnow, the silver lining to these predictions is that, “Most of the studies concentrate on the relationship between climate and the likelihood of fires in the future,” but the corollary piece is that when fuel supplies are diminished by one fire, the likelihood and severity of subsequent fires goes down, at least in the short term.

One thing that Krasnow can conclude before all of the data has been processed is that the forests here have evolved with fire, and will burn again.  “Learning to coexist with fire is really the task set before us.  The most challenging aspect will be to build or foster resilience to the forests of this area so that they will be maintained in the face of likely changes to the fire regime by climate change.

“That’s the challenge: to maintain forests (and the services they provide) under a climate that may tend to change the disturbance regime.”

Indeed the major focus in ecology circles right now is how to build resilience in these forest communities to combat Riginos’s great fear: that eventually our forests will transform into barren grassland.

Even as Jackson has sustained a relatively wet climate this year, keeping forest fires at bay, the major fires in neighboring states have left smoke trails all the way to the Atlantic, causing health warnings even in unaffected areas due to poor air quality. Air quality has been an inconvenience to many, but pales in comparison to those men and women on the ground, fighting the fires firsthand.

Caption 3: Smoke lingers over the Bridger-Teton National Forest after a lightning storm. (Photo:Bridger-Teton National Forest)

Smoke lingers over the Bridger-Teton National Forest after a lightning storm. (Photo:Bridger-Teton National Forest)

Gatekeeper, flame-feeder

The Forest Service is the gatekeeper between unchecked wildlands fires and populated areas, constantly taking stock of whether to let a fire blaze on to prevent larger fires in the future, or to contain and extinguish them. This is usually dictated by human concentration in the area, or nearby natural resources like watersheds. Fire-adapted ecosystems and hazardous fuel build-ups become a game of lesser of two evils for the Forest Service as drought conditions and heatwaves become the norm.

Andy Norman has worked for the Forest Service for more than 25 years. As the fuel specialist for the Teton area, he is in charge of wildland fire management. It is his job to determine when prescribed fires are necessary (which are human-management ignited in order to maintain fuel loads in forests), when to allow a natural fire to continue to burn, and how to combat unintentional human-caused forest fires.

“So even if we’re not happy about a fire, we allow natural processes to occur under certain conditions,” Norman said. “Where there are no developments to worry about. The program started with the Forest Service, and even the Park Service before that. We have to look at a fire before we let it burn, and we have to decide if we have resource availability to fight it if the fire should move unexpectedly out of the forest.”

Striking a balance between the green and the ash is a difficult, and rarely popular, decision, especially as 90 percent of forest fires are started by humans. This often leaves the Forest Service’s 13,500 employees to cut back millions of acres of wildfires in order to preserve the green and protect homes and natural resources.

While Norman has seen historical trends denoting decades of drought and high fire seasons, he has also seen decades of relative calm. When he first started working with the Forest Service in the 1970s, he reflects it was relatively calm until the big 1988 Yellowstone fire that scorched more than 1.8 million acres. Norman says the 1890s faced similar conditions to those seen today as major forest fires burned every year, heatwaves scarred the earth, and drought conditions plagued the West in a very comparable manner.

“Climate change is the big wildcard right now,” he said. “We’ve always had these really warm stretches for 10 to 15 years, but they’ve always swung back, but if climate change is truly happening, we’re going to see more fires, and longer fire seasons.”

Norman has seen not only an evolution in climate during his time with the Forest Service, but an evolution in budget as well. “There are two things that are going on, if climate change continues,” Norman said. “We’ll have more fires, but the other thing is the wildland-urban interface. As people keep moving out West, wanting to live along the boundary of the forest, a lot more of our budget has gone to protecting those private interests. We’re trying to keep those fires from moving out of forestland and onto private property.”

Unlike other natural disasters, there is no outside account that goes toward fire suppression. “The money that funds fire suppression comes internally from the Forest Service budget,” Norman said, “so this fall, we’re in what we call ‘Fire Transfer,’ which is essentially transferring money from other projects to pay the bills through October when the current budget cycle ends.”

Despite budget constraints, making sure people and property are safe is the driving goal of the Forest Service’s firefighters, but maintaining and cultivating healthy ecological environments is a close second. Krasnow notes several ways to combat the threat of wildfire without undermining its productive aspects. First, he says, “We need to be careful where we develop. We should do our best to keep structures out of fire-adapted ecosystems. We can also reduce fuel loads and adjust the structures of forests.” It comes down to helping these ecosystems thrive in the environments in which millennia of adaptation have equipped them. Of course heeding messages propagated by the Forest Service, such as not leaving fires unattended, making sure cigarettes are completely out, no controlled burns within 500 feet of forestland, etc., are very important. But Krasnow says that the heart of the issue, addressing climate change, will take a concerted effort from politicians and people around the world. PJH

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