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Wildfires Consume Funds Flagged for Prevention


Next up: wildfires. California's Rim Fire is not 80 percent contained, with some 4,000 firefighters still on the job. All that emergency response, of course, costs money, which federal government budgets for each year. But it doesn't seem to be enough, because three weeks ago, the head of the U.S. Forest Service announced that the Forest Service had burned through its firefighting budget, and would have to drain money earmarked for other things, like fire prevention.

While firefighters perform heroic deeds, one of my next guests has likened the way we manage fires in this country to the way we manage our health system, focused on emergencies rather than prevention. We are literally so busy putting out fires, we don't have the resources to prevent them. So what would it take to prevent an all-consuming fire like the one in California? Why do they burn so hot, so long, so out of control?

Can forests be managed, so when they burn, they don't turn into raging infernos? That's what we're going to be talking about. Let me introduce my guest. Chris Topik is director of Restoring America's Forests at the Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia. He joins us from Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHRIS TOPIK: Well, thanks very much. I appreciate it.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Steve Pyne is a fire historian at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

STEVE PYNE: Thank you.

FLATOW: Let me ask you, when it comes to this fire, how does this fire out West compare to other fires?

PYNE: Well, it - you know, there are several comparisons you can make. It depends how far back you want to go. Compared to what we've been looking at over the last decade, this is just a bigger example of what we've increasingly seen, and part of its punch is that it's a celebrity fire. That is, it's burning in a celebrity landscape. I mean, if you want to get attention, public or political, basically, you have to burn up a lot of houses, kill some people or involve a celebrity. And this year, we've had all three.

FLATOW: All right. On that note, we're going to take a break and come back and really get into this topic. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us at SCIENCE FRIDAY, @scifri. We'll be talking about fires raging now, past, present and what the future may look like. So, stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about fires, and fires that are going on out West every year, prevention, forest care with my guests Chris Topik, director of Restoring America's Forests at the Nature Conservancy, Steve Pyne, fire historian at ASU in Tempe, Arizona. Steve, you were saying that the reason this gets attention is it's a celebrity fire, and it's got all the makings of a good movie in it, obviously.


PYNE: Well, it's been - you know, we could expand it just beyond this fire, obviously. I mean, you're near San Francisco. You're in one of, you know, America's sacred landscapes. So there's going to be a lot of attention to it. But we're having large fires all over the place, and it's not just a case of having large area fires. It's the combination of large size, plus high intensity, particularly in areas that have not known them historically.

And that's the threat. Just an area burned, I mean, we're way under what we should be burning. We're just getting a lot of bad fires, where we could use four or five times more area burn for good fires.

FLATOW: What have we learned from all these fires? Let's talk about the Colorado fire last year. There was the Yarnell Fire in Arizona this year, killed 19 firefighters. There are dozens of fires, as you say, burning now. Is there a lesson in this?

PYNE: Well, there are a bunch of lessons. I mean, if you want - the simplest way to say is that this is the result of how we choose to live on our land and all the things we've done interacting with these lands. And this year is also interesting, because we've got to remember we don't have a fire problem. We have lots of fire problems. So all of the three fires you mentioned have been different. One deals with this urban wild land intermixing. And that was - involved a lot of private property and private lands and some state lands.

The Yarnell Hill Fire was on State of Arizona lands, run by the state. The crew that was killed was a city-sponsored fire crew. And with the Rim fire in the Sierras, we've got more or less classic wild land situation, a mixture of different kinds of land use on public lands, including parks. And they all have different fire needs. They're all being hit with what we might call a consuming fire, fires that we would prefer not to have, but they're all different. And the solutions, the ways we might begin resolving these are all going to be different.

FLATOW: Give me an example of the different kinds of solutions.

PYNE: Well, the solution - we know how to keep houses from burning. We've know this for thousands of years. And if we define the wild land urban problem, we've been defining it as a wild land problem where fires from wild lands are slamming into these communities, and the problem these communities are moving into areas where the fires exist. But if we defined it on the other side of the equation, namely that this is really an urban fire problem, it's just little bits of cities, ex-urban enclaves with peculiar landscaping, forest or wild land-like landscaping.

Then you would define it as an urban fire problem, and we know how to keep it from burning. We know you start with the house itself. You start with zoning. You start with all the things that are necessary to keep fires out of cities.

TOPIK: And can I build on that, Ira?

FLATOW: Please, go ahead, Chris.

TOPIK: I agree with that completely, and getting back to lessons learned, I mean, a couple of lessons: We've learned that the communities, fire-adapted communities, communities working to help protect themselves can work. We've seen some examples of that in Colorado. And also the prevention activities where we actually get out, restore fire-adapted forests. I had the good fortune last year to spend a bunch of time flying with Project Light Hawk all over the Wallow fire in Arizona. It burned half a million acres.

And there was an entire community in Alpine where extensive thinning of the forest around the city, the town was done. And you could see how the fire, when it had been burning through the entire forests, hot - the whole tops of trees burning - when it got closer to where they'd thinned out the trees, the fire got cooler. It laid down on the ground, and then they were able to actually control it.

So there's some real important lessons to be learned that communities can do things, as well as our work on the wild land. If we're very strategic about where we choose to do that work, we can make a big difference.

FLATOW: But are you going to get cooperation from people who have built their dream home in the middle of a forest and don't want you chopping down a perimeter that might protect them from a fire because of the beauty of the area?

TOPIK: It's a big education challenge, but it certainly works. I've been, for instance, down in Florida, where we have the most lightening strikes of any place in North America. Fire is an important part of the ecosystem of a Longleaf Pine, needs to have fire. And there you see rows and rows of multi-million dollar mansions with swimming pools adjacent to Longleaf Pine in state parks, and every three years, the state park does the burn, and they let the neighbor know, and they all cover their swimming pools. And so it works. It's the way to go.

PYNE: If I could add a personal note on that. We've had a cabin for 20 years at Alpine. We were in the fire and came through just fine. I spent a long time treating that place so it could survive this kind of fire. When we moved into that community, everything imaginable was done wrong. They wanted, you know, natural roofing, preferably wood. They wouldn't let you cut things. They wouldn't - everything they could possibly have done would have magnified the fire problem.

And the lesson got through after watching so many fires take out so many communities. They changed. They changed the CC&Rs. They changed the roofing. They organized committees for cleanup. They put hydrants in, and the community approved a fire district and tax for it. So it is possible to make these changes, but we're talking about a huge fraction of America's housing that need to be retrofitted, and that's a different problem than building new communities with an eye towards protecting from fire.

FLATOW: In Australia, people can defend their houses instead of evacuating. Is that right? Is that a good idea?

PYNE: That's a good idea, but the Australians are having to have second thoughts about it as a result of the 2009 Black Saturday fire, in which something like 171 or 173 people were killed, many of them in their houses. The critical ingredient here is that you have to prepare. Whether you're going to defend the house or whether you're going to leave, you have to do fairly extensive preparations.

If you don't do that, then you could just be staying in a death trap. And as a result of the extreme conditions under that fire, the sense is growing that under really extraordinary, almost off-the-chart conditions, that they may not be survivable at all, and the only way to remain would be to have the equivalent of tornado shelters. I mean, you just go underground and wait it out.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. Chris, you used to work for the House Appropriations Committee. You have an idea of how this stuff gets paid for. Tell us what's going on with the Forest Service budget, how they're paying for firefighting and fire prevention.

TOPIK: Well, right now, you know, the sad truth is like you said in your setup, is that we're in a situation where we have such big mega-fires that are out of control, burning uncharacteristically due to all the droughts and the overstocking of forests and having houses in the wild lands. And so we're not able to invest the money in these prevention activities. So the Nature Conservancy is very much dedicated to working in a collaborative group.

We have our scientists and our collaborators working who live in communities, and it makes a big difference. And that's what we're seeing, is we're losing that kind of funding. And so I think it's only natural that - I think it's appropriate that the Forest Service and the Interior Department have to fund the firefighters during these emergencies, and I think it would be inappropriate to call of firefighters and say, sorry, whoops. We're out of money.

So it's, you know, that emergency activity needs to be done for society. But now, I mean, the Forest Service has just taken $600 million out of their operating account. And not only that, what's even just as damaging is they've sent a memo that told all their people all over the country - and mind you, the Forest Service manages 8 percent of America. It's a vast, vast area, almost 200 million acres.

They told their field people: Be careful. Don't spend much money. Don't do anything, because we might need the rest of your money for emergency services. And so I'm hoping that the Congress, when they get back to town here, I'm right nearby. I'm on North Capitol Street right now. I'm hoping that they will respond with emergency funds to cover these emergency needs.

And we and many others stand ready to work with them to come up with a more enduring solution for funding, so that we don't have first responders just having to stop or worry about their activities, that we can fund appropriately, with accountability, first responders, but still invest in this forest restoration, which, actually, we know works, does reduce damage to society.

FLATOW: What kind of forest restoration do you mean? Describe that for us.

TOPIK: Well, as an ecologist, unfortunately, the curse of the ecologist is we always say it depends on the local ecology, and that's why it's very important to have science-based. So depending on where you are - and in the mountains, it's going to be quite different from high elevation to low elevation - but we have vast areas of these forests that should have fire, the good fire that Dr. Pyne mentioned, that we should have large areas that regularly get light, small fire.

And so in order to do that, if - because we had decades where we stopped all fires and we let the brush and small trees get too dense, those now burn too hot. So we need to invest money to take that wood out. A lot of that wood sometimes can have other values. It can be saw timber. It can be used for wood energy. So we need to do whatever we can to find common ways of funding that. You know, the communities benefit. The water systems benefit. So that's the kind of work that we need to do. A lot of times it's thinning. A lot of times it's controlled burning. There are other kinds of steps that can be taken depending on the ecosystem.

If you're in a very harsh area that burns hot like the chaparral in Southern California that causes so much damage, where my family - their - half of their street burned down in 1993, those areas, you need to have clear space. So you need a defensible space around the houses.

FLATOW: So there's not one-size-fits-all solution to this thing.

TOPIK: No, no. It's a big country. And when you go from climates, from high elevation to low elevation, there's different fire ecology, different needs, and that's why we need to bring - invest in the appropriate science.

And also, you know, we do know that climate is changing, and I think eight of the last 10 years have been the worst fire years and the worst drought years, and they're all related. We are seeing climate change through these long, long fire seasons.

FLATOW: Steve, you have anything to add to that?

PYNE: Well, just to emphasize again that there's enormous variability about this. We've got to think about a pluralism of approaches because there are some natural systems that simply do burn hot. They burn by ground fire infrequently, and we have to find some way to accommodate those as well. So there's not one solution: if we thin this out, then that solves it. It's going to be really site by site.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So we see - you know, you watch stuff on TV. We see these fires that are escaping, and they're diverted. They end up burning down someone's ranch. Who's to blame for that? OK. I mean, is it the Forest Service? Is it the firefighters, the people who moved in there, the developers? Steve? You're a historian.

PYNE: Everybody - look, everybody's implicated in this, and they've been implicated for a long time. This did not suddenly happen. This has taken decades to create, and it's going to take a long time to deleverage, if you will.

And much of the concern I hear in the fire community now is that we're too late. You know, it's out of control. We're not going to be able to get ahead of this problem. We have to find some way to ride it out until we get a break in the weather, until we can begin making some minor changes, we can protect our most critical assets. But in the larger sense, the fire scene is out of control for the moment.

And, you know, there's a certain sense in which you have to agree, but - and just - I mean, just going back to who's responsible, fire is a reaction. It integrates everything around it, and there are probably three or four or five things that are more important. So there are lots and lots of contributing causes.

But that's also a good news because it means there are lots and lots of points of intervention. There's not one big thing we can do. There are lots of little things we can do in particular places to start - other than just, you know, having to build concrete bunkers and wear - weather it out.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Chris Topik and Steve Pyne. What would be the first thing, Steve, that you'd want to do? Give me a priority of things.

PYNE: The first thing - if I had one thing...


PYNE: ...that we need to do is we need to operate on a bigger scale. And you'll hear lots from the science and fire community. We need to operate on a landscape scale. So there are many, many things in a given landscape to do, but we need to be able to operate other than these small, sort of set piece kinds of projects. We need to get...

FLATOW: What does that mean in practical terms? Describe...

PYNE: It means that you're dealing with projects that are hundreds of thousands of acres or millions of acres.

FLATOW: Right.

PYNE: And you are being strategic about where you put your money and so forth. But the flip side to that is getting sort of the institutional landscape in order. And by that I mean there are all kinds of points where we can stop, we stall, we gag, we can't be nimble. Even if we have favorable break in the weather one season, we can't respond. We don't have torch-ready projects approved and funded, ready to go. We simply can't operate fast enough to try to cope.

And there is a big project underway. It's been - it was mandated by the FLAME Act based on recommendation from the GAO. It's a national cohesive strategy, and it's trying to create, if you will, a political matrix where we can begin making these critical decisions. We're not going to get resources for everybody for everything.

How do we decide where we put our efforts and have some sense of legitimacy? Even if we don't all agree with the outcome, we agree that the process was OK, and we can begin doing something.

FLATOW: Chris, you agree?

TOPIK: Yeah. I agree with all of that completely, and let me add a couple of things. You know, The Nature Conservancy, we like to be very hopeful. And as difficult as it is, building on what Steve said, four years ago, The Nature Conservancy and many other partners worked to get a law passed, the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, and through our work with many others, and the Congress has funded that, $40 million a year.

And that's an effort now where 23 large landscapes across the country - and some of these are half a million acres in size, and some are a couple, three, four million acres, quite large areas - where local communities, local scientists, local cities and municipalities work for a vision together. And then we have the money to start implementing the projects strategically.

So the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration is out there, and we think it'll work. And, you know, another great partnership that many of the federal agencies are leading, along with the insurance industry, recreation industry - The Nature Conservancy is a player - there's a partnership called Fire Adapted Communities.

And so this is an educational tool where we can provide useful materials to cities and towns and planners that they can end up being a lot more ready to learn to live with fire. We're not going to stop fire. Fire is an important part of our environment, but it doesn't need to be so destructive.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And people are willing to change, willing to be part of this?

TOPIK: I think so. I mean, a short story where my parents lived had this terrible fire in 1993, Laguna Beach, California, took out 368 single-family houses. And there's a lot of finger pointing that went on there. It was a bad fire year in the chaparral. But that town - and it's a wealthy town, mind you, but they now have a lot of response, and they have a fire management plan. It's called the Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

They have zones that separate the subdivision from the flammable chaparral, and they actually, in that case, bring goats in every three or four years to help clear the zones so that you have a safe spot. And, you know, they've done other things - build water tanks and so forth.

FLATOW: All right.

TOPIK: But communities can do things.

FLATOW: We'll stop with the goats. I like to hear that. Thank you very much, Chris and Steve, for taking time to be with us today.

PYNE: It's my pleasure.

FLATOW: Chris Topik, director of Restoring America's Forests at The Nature Conservancy. Steve Pyne, fire historian, Arizona State University. We're going to take a break. Come right back. Stay with us. Don't go away. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.