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Hotter Temps, Long-Term Drought, Development Drive Fire Problems in the West

July 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
How do weather conditions, land use and forestry practices play a role in sparking wildfires nationwide? Judy Woodruff speaks to author and journalist Michael Kodas ,who has been covering the deadly wildfire in Prescott, Ariz., about fire risks and whether the latest fatalities will affect firefighting policy in the future.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In light of the fires out West, many questions are being asked about weather conditions, land use, forestry practices and what role they play.

Michael Kodas is an author and journalist whose been covering the wildfire in Prescott. His book, “Megafire,” is due out next year. I spoke with him a short time ago.

Michael Kodas, welcome to the NewsHour.

First of all, how is the climate in which these wildfires are occurring changing?

MICHAEL KODAS, Author/Journalist: Well, we have seen a pretty distinct increase in temperatures throughout most of the West and particularly here in Arizona.

A recent report identified Arizona as having more warming than any other of the 50 states in the United States. And we have also seen a pretty prevalent and deep drought throughout most of the West that has lasted in some areas for many years. And those really affect the fuels that drive these fires.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying that the combination of the two is having an effect. You also talked to us about conditions in the community, the fact that more people are building homes into areas that were previously all forests.

MICHAEL KODAS: Yes.

Development is a big part of what’s driving our fire problem. We have, you know, thousands of people moving into forested and flammable landscapes. And that adds fuel to the forest, the houses, the propane tanks and things like that. But it also brings a lot of sparks into the landscape. There’s all kinds of starts of fire that occur when people move into the forests, you know, from everything from sparks from vehicles on roads to arcing power lines to serve those communities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one of the other elements you talked to us about, Michael Kodas, was the role that the policy that the United States has in the way it treats forests.

MICHAEL KODAS: Yes.

Well, we have been putting out fires in the United States for more than a century. We have been putting out forest fires. The problem is that, in many landscapes, that has made future fires worse. Every time you put out a fire, you usually end up leaving that fuel in the forest. So if you have a landscape that normally had fires come through it every, say, 30 years, and you put out fires in that landscape for a century, then you have three times more fuel in that forest.

And that fuel is affected by the climate and dries out. And the fires that result are much hotter and much faster, both because the fuels can be much dryer and in a much warmer place and because there’s much more fuel to burn.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how much longer — people talk about the fire season. How does the length of the season today compare to what it was?

MICHAEL KODAS: That’s been one of the more dramatic changes, particularly in Colorado, where I live. Because we have seen, you know, a warmer and dryer climate, the mountains get less snow during the winter. And that snow melts off much earlier in the season. Normally, the snowpack on high mountains is kind of a reservoir that trickle irrigates for us, you know, into the summer.

But now the snowpack melts off much earlier. These forests dry out much earlier. And so we see fires much earlier in the season. In Colorado, we had a deadly wildfire in March of last year. And we had firefighters that got burned over in the winter of last year.

At the other end of the season, we also see fires starting much later in the season, in autumn. And we even had a fire in Rocky Mountain National Park that burned right through the winter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when you put some of these things together, the changing climate, the weather conditions you described, the fact that people are building into forested areas, the policy toward fires themselves, what does it all add up to in terms of what this country faces?

MICHAEL KODAS: Well, we have both, you know, far more flammable forests in many of our forested landscapes.

And particularly here in the Southwest, we see a distinct increase in wild fire deaths. That’s been scientifically documented for more than a decade now. And we also have a lot more people at risk. And that really complicates firefighting policy.

The federal government has been trying to put fire back into these landscapes for many years, but it’s very difficult when you have communities around these forests now. Prescribed burn policies are very difficult to implement, both because they can be dangerous to communities and they affect air quality. And thinning projects are incredibly expensive, to send people have to cut out excess fuel out of these forests.

So we end up with kind of a vicious circle of many more people at risk in the forest and the risks in those forests increasing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We see some of the people there behind you who have come to remember the firefighters who died on Sunday. Michael Kodas, what effect do you think their deaths may have on firefighting policy, if any?

MICHAEL KODAS: Well, I think this will have an effect.

It seems like every decade or two decades, we have an event where a number of firefighters, and often very good, the elite firefighters, perish in a single event. The fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado back in 1994 was an event like that. And I think it will cause federal officials to look over our safety policies and the way that we go about fighting fires and try to ensure that this kind of tragedy doesn’t happen again.

One worry is that with fire regimes changing and with the nature of forest fires changing, you know, are our safety policies keeping up with the way that the hazard is developing?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Based on what you see in the community, how are they dealing with this today?

MICHAEL KODAS: Well, this is a very tight-knit community. And it’s important to point out that we have a lot of Hot Shot crews in the United States, but this was the only one that was really part of a city fire department.

So it wasn’t just, you know, the traditional Hot Shots, where you really just knew them for their work fighting fires up in the mountains. But these guys were really tied closely to the community, to the other firefighters who worked on protecting houses. And it was one really very tight-knit community.

Some of these firefighters come from families with a history of this kind of service, so I think it’s been really devastating to the community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Kodas joining us from Prescott, Ariz., thank you. 

Michael Kodas was in Arizona reporting for OnEarth, a publication that focuses on the environment.