Scientists Cite New Data, Concluding Risk-Based Fuel Reduction Is Needed to Save Our Forests

Building on That Data, Cantwell Calls for Targeted, Science-Based Fuel Treatments to Save Our Forests

WASHINGTON, D.C. – (RealEstateRama) — Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Energy Committee Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) joined leading scientists who provided new data showing that the majority of ponderosa pine forests in the country are at grave risk of being killed by the new, more severe fires we are now seeing. New data shows that, without a new plan, increasing warm temperatures will result in 67 million acres of our country’s forests being lost to unnaturally severe wildfires—10 percent of U.S. forests. Scientists pointed to investing in fuel treatments to protect our forests.

Energy and Natural Resources Committee

During the call organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, leading experts discussed the connection between wildfires and climate change, the amount of forests at risk of burning up and the costs incurred by failing to employ new strategies. Dr. Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that, “as temperatures increase, the area of land in the Western U.S. that has burned annually has doubled and is projected to continue to increase.”

In fact, Dr. Randi Jandt, a fire ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, showed the connection between 2014 and 2015 being the two warmest years on record in Alaska and the 5.1 million acres that burned in Alaska last summer. Jandt continued: “Warming is thought to be the primary driver behind the doubling of multimillion acre fire seasons that we’ve observed in the last few decades.” New data released today shows that, by mid-century, warming should double.

In light of these changes in climate, new strategies to prevent wildfires are needed. Dr. Cleetus said: “Simply put, our firefighting and forest management policies haven’t yet caught up with the new realities of these worsening wildfire risks in a warming world. By failing to plan ahead and allocate adequate resources, we are simply increasing the costs of wildfires.”  Sen. Cantwell noted: “In California, agencies have already spent almost $1 billion fighting fires this summer.”

In fact, investing in fuel reduction would also save taxpayer dollars. We are seeing a huge increase in fire spending: in 2010, the Forest Service spent $578 million suppressing fires; in 2015, they spent $1.7 billion. The Forest Service predicts that we’ll see hundreds of millions more spent over the next several years.

“Spending so much of our budget during fire season … isn’t going to be a total solution for us. That is only half of a solution. We need to deal with this situation now to save our forests. We cannot afford to play catch up once the fire has started,” Sen. Cantwell said.

Dr. Rachel Cleetus agreed: “The West is in dire need of policy changes that can help limit wildfires and build greater resilience to them. We thank Sen. Cantwell for her leadership on these issues.”

Dr. Robert Scheller of Portland State University added, “We need resources to prepare for climate change. It’s happening now, and it’s going to really ramp up in the coming near-term.”

Scientists today reiterated that doing risk-based fuel reduction can better protect our forests from the risk of severe wildfires. Dr. Scheller suggested that we “consider a broad landscape triage. … The drier forests of Washington and Oregon—the east-side forests—can be managed for climate change. … Careful preparations, such as fuel treatments applied at really large scales, give us the capacity to quickly react and adapt. We can prevent really destructive large-scale forest fires in these dry forests.”

Building on that science, Sen. Cantwell is advocating for a new program to save our most at-risk forests. Sen. Cantwell stated: “Science is saying that if we actually try to create a response to the warmer weather temperatures that we are seeing, doing risk-based fuel reductions might help us in the future in saving some of those 67 million acres of forest land.”

In Washington state, there are almost 2 million acres of land for which wildfires bear a very high ecological risk. Projects to protect forests from those kinds of fires would be key, having experienced two summers in a row of devastating fire impacts throughout the state.

There are two examples that Sen. Cantwell highlighted on today’s call: “One [potential fire prevention project] is in Chelan County—there is a forest collaborative working on risk-based fuel treatments in the pine forests of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. And there’s another collaborative that’s working in the pine forests in the Colville area.”

If we want to save our forests, we’re going to have to take more decisive action, clearer action on risk-based fuel reduction. We are talking about doing risk-based fuel reduction in the right places and how that can prevent large-scale wildfires from taking so much of our forests,” Sen. Cantwell said.

In addition to saving our forests, Sen. Cantwell is interested in finding a way to reduce carbon emissions from our forests burning up. Models show that doing risk-based fuel treatments on 1 percent of Forest Service lands could save up to 33 million tons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere—that’s the equivalent of taking 55 million vehicles off the road.

Additionally, we could use wood from the most at-risk forests for cross-laminated timber—a new technology that enables the construction of large buildings from wood. By incentivizing more use of cross-laminated timber, we can reduce fires, generate revenue, and store carbon that would otherwise go up into the atmosphere during fires. In Sen. Cantwell’s words, sustainable construction through the use of cross-laminated timber is a better use “than having 67 million acres burn up.”

Download audio of the call here.
Read more on Sen. Cantwell’s risk-based fuel reduction proposal.
Read more on cross-laminated timber.

Key data points:

-Of the 121 million acres of ponderosa pine forests in U.S., a majority of them are at risk of being killed by new, more severe fires.

-67 million acres in the West, or 10 percent of all U.S. forests are at a very high-risk of dying from these new wildfires. Two million of these high-risk fires are in Washington.

-By 2050, the amount of warming that is directly causing these fires will double.

-More than 5 million acres were burned in Alaska last year. Accounting for 1 percent of the carbon emitted worldwide last year.

-In 2016, agencies in California have already spent almost $1 billion fighting fires, and the fire season isn’t over yet.

– October fires in California are usually 10 times as costly as the wildfires already seen this year.

-Over the last two decades, October fires were responsible for 80 percent of the total costs of California’s fires.

-In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service spent more fighting fires than it did in 2010. In 2010, the Forest Service spent $578 million; in 2015 they spent $1.7 billion.

-The Forest Service predicts that costs will increase another $600 million in the next 10 years.

-Models show that doing risk-based fuels treatments, like thinning and prescribed burns on these top 1 percent of federal lands could save up to 33 million tons (equal to removing 55 million vehicles off the road) of carbon from being released into the atmosphere.

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