I’ve been covering wildfires in the American west for three years now. On Tuesday, I moved outside of Denver to a property adjacent to Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests west of Boulder.
The first thing I did while unpacking was pack a bug out bag in case of an emergency when a nearby wildfire threatens to light my new place up in flames. Wildfires are no longer some faraway problem that pollutes lungs every once-in-a-while. They’re a very real risk to living at 9,000 feet, especially when surrounded by federally managed land. To Washington bureaucrats, forest fires are merely a consequential warning of a changing climate.
More than 61 million residents up and down the east coast got a rude education this week to the experience of their neighbors in the American west who choke on wildfire smoke every summer.
Western infernos have become so out of control in recent years that the California insurance industry is going up in flames along with Americans’ homes and livelihoods. While the beltway press is eager to blame climate change, the primary culprit is negligent land management.
Maybe the wildfire smoke that cancelled classes and baseball games in the nation’s capital will now wake up Washington lawmakers to the annual haze that blocks out the summer sun in the American West. Western states have spent years calling on D.C. bureaucrats who manage a third of the nation’s land to get their act together and properly maintain federal forests going up in smoke.
More than 100 years of aggressive fire suppression has left federal forests overgrown as massive tinder boxes waiting to turn heavenly mountain towns into scenes from Hell at the first match. But there are a myriad of ways Washington can proactively reverse the consequences of a century’s-worth of disaster forest policy.
For starters Congress can roll back the Roadless Rule prohibiting road construction and timber harvesting across nearly 59 million acres of federal forests. The lack of roads block firefighters’ access to put out problematic blazes and hampers efforts to manage the land properly. Meanwhile the lack of timber harvesting contributes to the fuel buildup on Forest Service land.
Joe Reddan has spent nearly four decades as a forester including a prolonged stint at the U.S Forest Service. Reddan now runs his own forestry consulting firm and said federal land managers need to ramp up timber sales and accelerate forest thinning to prevent summer wildfires from becoming the mega-infernos that send pollution as far as Europe.
“Trees come out of the woods in one of two ways,” Reddan told me. “One on a log truck and the other up in smoke.”
Current land managers remain over reliant on prescribed burns to clear out excess debris that eventually fuel large fires. Reddan described prescribed burns, where an area is deliberately set ablaze to preventatively incinerate smaller wood fuels, as “stone-age technology” that’s “very indiscriminate and causes large scale mortality.”
A prescribed burn in the Santa Fe National Forest that spun out of control last year ignited into the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.
“I don’t know of anybody who’s ever lost a house to an escaped timber sale,” Reddan said, adding the forests need to be properly managed back to good health before prescribed burns should be used.
Washington lawmakers can increase timber sales by rolling back the Roadless Rule hampering development in rural areas. A resurgence in primary processing plants or, sawmills, offers not only medicine to land health but promises local employment in small western mountain towns deprived of economic opportunities at the behest of radical environmentalists.