Obama's Fireman
Credit: Photograph by Elias Funez / Modesto Bee / Zumapress.com

Dave Cleaves has been sounding that alarm for nearly 25 years. An economist and former professor, Cleaves has spent more than two decades helping the U.S. Forest Service develop economic models to help determine whether the amount spent on firefighting was justified by the amount saved in property damage by putting the fires out.

In the late 1980s, Cleaves found himself wondering: Why was the U.S. being hit by more and more uncontrollable fires? Up until then, increasing investments in firefighting seemed to have rendered wildfires tamable. But in 1989, 873 structures burned down in California wildfires. In 1990, 641 structures were lost in a single fire. In 1991, more than 3,300 homes were torched in a firestorm near Oakland. Throughout the 1980s, an average of 3 million acres had burned each year in the U.S.; by 1991, the number exceeded 5 million acres. "Large parts of whole counties in the West were going up in single fires," says Cleaves. "We'd never seen fires like that."

Cleaves pored over the data and came to a disturbing conclusion, one that seemed almost preposterous at the time: A slow but accelerating rise in average temperatures in the West was tipping the wildlands into a state of unprecedented vulnerability that would render fires increasingly uncontrollable. Today, we call it climate change. At the time, Cleaves' insight was mostly ignored.

The U.S. Forest Service's Dave Cleaves has been warning about the link between climate change and wildfires for the past two decades. (Photograph by John Loomis)

Throughout the 1990s, state and federal officials struggled to get a grip on these new, massive fires by engaging in an ever-escalating firefighting arms race. The ranks of wildfire fighters swelled to more than 10,000, and these troops were equipped with fleets of aircraft and ground vehicles for transportation and for spraying water and fire suppressants, and establishing the enormous mobile infrastructure needed to support it all. The national firefighting command and coordination center in Boise, Idaho, was beefed up so that crews and equipment could be shuffled between the multiple fires that were breaking out across the West. These efforts proved successful in squelching 98 percent of all wildfires. Unfortunately, the remaining 2 percent proved to be catastrophic blazes capable of converting millions of acres of forest and thousands of homes into ash.

Cleaves' insistence that something big was happening was paid little attention to by the George W. Bush administration, which ignored climate change. "I was just someone running around creating problems," Cleaves says.

Today, Cleaves' title is climate change adviser to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service. And he is finally being heard, and at the highest levels. President Obama has been outspoken this year on the relationship between climate change and wildfires. And many in Congress have been calling attention to the problem. "Wildfires are getting more intense, more dangerous, and more expensive to fight," says Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has been pushing for changes in wildfire policy.

The average warming in the West, says Cleaves, has been deceptively slight – just a small fraction of a degree per year for the past several decades. But that tiny increase has created a growing list of consequences: trees and soil drying out from drought; a steep reduction in the winter snowpack critical to inhibiting fire; an invasion of bark beetles, mountain pine beetles, and other insects that turn living trees into highly flammable dead ones; the encroachment of more-flammable plants from the South; and the expanding of the fire season by nearly three months. "These are multiple, interacting sources of stress on our forests, and they're all increasing the fire hazard," Cleaves says. "I think the result will be that we're going to see an average of maybe 10,000 wildfires burning 10 million acres a year." He concedes he's probably being conservative. Other experts predict an annual wildfire destruction of closer to 12 million acres – an area twice the size of Maryland.

That's four times as many acres as burned annually in the 1980s on average. The six worst fire seasons in the past half-century have occurred since 2000. And a decades-long series of increasingly intense western droughts will continue to make the situation much worse. In a study published in the prestigious journal Nature Geoscience, a team of researchers studied the western 2000–2004 drought and concluded it had been the most severe of the past 800 years – a trend that is expected to continue throughout the century.

A fast-moving wildfire burns in the hills above Glendora, about 25 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Nothing unusual there except for the date: January 16, 2014. In fact, in much of the West, fire season is now a yearlong event. This blaze, the Colby Fire, consumed almost 2,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,600 people. (Ringo H. W. Chu / AP)

Many other regions that are not associated with wildfires are also seeing a growing risk. Over the past few years, Texas has seen grassland fires of such destruction that Gov. Rick Perry was moved to reach past his anti–big government principles to request federal help. Drought has pushed far enough east to provide Lake Michigan and Lake Huron with record-low water levels. Virginia had one of its worst wildfire years ever in 2012, with nearly 50,000 acres burned. Even New Jersey's pine barrens are prone to fire, a fact lost on the national media until a blaze there in April left Manhattan lightly draped in smoke. In fact, the Northeast experienced 13,000 wildfires in 2013. And the Southeast also is vulnerable. "The wildlands around Atlanta have the same stressors we see in Southern California," says Miller. "We used to think of it as a western problem, but it's now a national one."

As the number and intensity of wildfires grow, trying to put them out has become an expensive proposition. The Forest Service currently has 10,000 firefighters on call and access to a fleet of 18 large air tankers, including two DC-10s, to spray fire retardant. It also has more than 150 large helicopters and is spending half a billion dollars to get more, higher-tech tankers. Fighting a single large wildfire costs about $1 million a day, and at the peak firefighting level, the service has spent $100 million a week. In recent years, the total firefighting bill to the nation from the service has hit close to $2 billion – a nearly tenfold increase from the early 1990s. Meanwhile, states have separately been spending an average of about $1.5 billion a year on fighting wildfires.

Yet all these resources still aren't enough. "It's too difficult to manage fires under some of the conditions we've been seeing, no matter what tools are available," says Eric Knapp, a research ecologist with the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station in Redding, California. He notes that last year's Rim Fire in California tore through about 40,000 acres a day. "At that rate, you just have to back off and watch it," he says.

Even while spending on fire suppression has skyrocketed over the past 15 years, the money allocated to fire prevention has remained fairly flat. In fact, much of the money we've spent on fighting fires was supposed to go to preventing them. But over the past seven years, the Forest Service has been forced to steal $2.2 billion from those prevention funds to keep its suppression efforts going. Congress has also grabbed fire-prevention funds to make up for other government shortfalls.

Neglecting prevention, of course, contributes to the fires' worsening in the following years, which leads to more stealing of prevention funds. "The massive blazes that make up 1 percent of fires on average consume 30 percent of the billions in fire costs," says Sen. Wyden. "But instead of treating those fires as natural disasters, just like hurricanes and tornadoes, the government is stuck in a cycle of borrowing money from the very prevention work that could make these fires less dangerous and less expensive."

In the wake of the Colby Fire. (Nick Ut / AP)

The Obama administration is trying to change that. Its proposed 2015 budget includes a mechanism to protect about $1 billion in wildfire prevention and damage-reduction efforts. The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, as the Obama plan is called, seeks to provide funding to help protect 46 million homes in 70,000 communities at risk from wildfire. The strategy specifically calls out the importance of restoration and mitigation, and it clearly acknowledges climate change as a critical factor.

The proposal is facing fierce opposition. Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, has been a particularly outspoken critic of the administration's intention to downplay firefighting in favor of forest management and fire prevention. He and some other politicians from the West want to keep all-out firefighting as the top priority – harking back to the 1930s, when the Forest Service's so-called "10 am policy" promised to extinguish new fires by the next morning. They also want to bring in more logging and grazing as a self-funding form of thinning. "I want you to go back to the 10 am policy, " Pearce said in one congressional speech. "Then let's go in and let's start clearing our forests and cutting the fuels out." Among Pearce's Republican colleagues echoing that only-logging-can-prevent-forest-fires sentiment is Alaska Rep. Don Young. "Until we can properly reduce fire risks on these lands through the modest harvest and clearing of at-risk timber," says Young, "we will continue to see our agencies slash through millions in federal land management dollars in order to combat wildfires."

But few experts believe the 10 am scheme is workable in the current environment. And while logging and grazing might in fact do some good by reducing the density of trees and grass, most believe that over the long term, such practices convert forests and grasslands into less healthy, more fire-prone landscapes. Needless to say, the timber and livestock industries are big backers of Pearce and Young's point of view; so are real-estate developers, who fear the new administration policy will make it harder to build new homes in and around wildlands. Pearce has a bill before Congress to make his proposed strategy the law. Supporters include conservative Republican representatives from Colorado, Washington, and Arizona.

If Obama's policy does become law and shifts the budget and strategy in favor of prevention, could enough be done to actually prevent wildfires? In fact, it could. But whether the public will support the president's policy is another question.