PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – The risk of wildfire has dramatically increased in the west, and most of that increase is because of humans. But experts told utilities commissioners Friday that presents a silver lining: problems caused by people can also be solved by them.
Fireworks, unauthorized shooting ranges and illegal campfires have been sparking fires for decades. But in recent years, small blazes have increasingly spread out of control, fueled by heat and drought, a legacy of fire suppression, and the widespread increase in highly flammable invasive grasses.
Last year, over 58,000 wildfires in the U.S. burned 8.8 million acres. This year’s cool, wet spring has meant that fewer fires have burned so far than had burned by this time last year: 3.3 million acres this year versus 4.1 million acres at this point last year. But wildfire season is just beginning, and in the dry grasslands of the west, a wet spring spurs the growth of invasive grasses that easily ignite.
And the risk to people has increased with more people living in areas that are likely to burn, where urban and rural areas meet. Since the Camp Fire that leveled Paradise, Calif. and killed 86 people last year was found to have been caused by Pacific Gas & Electric’s electrical lines, utilities have scrambled to make their operations safer.
“Looking at fire risk through the lens of ‘could we trigger it or aggravate it’ is new to Bonneville,” Robin Furrer, vice president of transmission and field services for Bonneville Power Administration told a group of west coast public utilities commissioners at a meeting Friday. “Before, I would worry about ice and wind. I’m worried about other things now that were not on my screen before.”
Representatives from Bonneville Power Administration, Canada’s BC Hydro, San Diego Gas & Electric and California Public Utilities Commission detailed programs to intensively monitor transmission lines running through forests, preemptively repair damage and sterilize the soil surrounding them so lightning strikes don’t find fuel to burn.
Chris Dunn, a researcher with Oregon State University, presented techniques to map wildfire risk, overlaid with measurements showing the difficulty of fighting fire across areas that are burning. Dunn said the maps will help firefighters strategically choose where to fight each blaze.
But just as climate change has reshaped fire risk in the last few years, so will the coming years bring more changes.
“The way we’ve worked in the past won’t work on this new and changing landscape,” said Oregon Public Utilities Commissioner Letha Tawney. “Best practice this year won’t be best practice after a three-year drought or after a catastrophic winter storm.”
Crystal Raymond, climate adaptation specialist with the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, said about half of the increase in wildfire risk can be directly attributed to human-caused climate change.
“We’re not saying it’s all climate change,” Raymond said. “Climate change is a big part of it, but it’s also forest management, fire suppression and an increase in people living in the urban-rural interface. That informs ways to deal with this.”
For the drier parts of the west, dominated by ponderosa pine forests and grasslands, that means prescribed fires to burn up fuel and regenerate ecosystems evolved to burn every 10 or 20 years. But in the temperate rainforests of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, Raymond said prescribed burns don’t work. There, trees are not adapted to fire, and forests are naturally dense, with continuous vegetation growing from the forest floor all the way to the canopy.
“Unfortunately it’s more about preparedness, it’s about evacuation, it’s about response,” Raymond said. “It’s mostly preventing the ignition and preventing the impacts to people and society and our assets.”