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Why suppressing wildfires may be making the Western fire crisis worse

A lingering "hot spot" on the McKinney Fire, which destroyed more than 100 homes and killed four people in California in August.
Kirk Siegler/NPR
A lingering "hot spot" on the McKinney Fire, which destroyed more than 100 homes and killed four people in California in August.

ASHLAND, Ore. — Jason Fischer watches a firefighting chopper scoop a big bucket of water out of the Klamath River, as it douses hotspots on the McKinney Fire in remote Northern California.

The flames threatening his sixth-generation cattle farm, Fischer looks across the narrow river canyon at a steep, charred mountainside. All the trees are blackened silhouettes.

His face twists into a scowl.

"This whole fire we knew ... it was a bomb," he says.

The last time the forests on the other side of the river burned was the Haystack Fire in 1955.

"And after that, they never did anything to manage the land, so all that grew back was brush," Fischer says. "The brush was 10 feet high, so one little spark when it's 113 degrees outside."

Fischer's frustration is one you hear a lot in this corner of the West, especially where the timber industry — once mighty — has largely shut down. The forests are neglected, not being managed, the saying goes. Environmental laws prevent them from being thinned or logged.

"People are tired and worn out from the downturn of the timber industry and the poverty and lack of funds and lack of action," says Larry Alexander, director of the Northern California Resource Center in nearby Fort Jones, Calif. "Then they look up and see everything burn up, and so they get angry."

Wildfires have burned about six million acres of land so far this year, mostly in the West and Alaska. Due to prior forest management decisions, including a century or more of suppressing wildfires, Alexander says many forests are a tinder box.

Severe drought and prolonged heatwaves — now more common with climate change — have exacerbated the problem. Yet Alexander and other foresters on the ground in Western states say there are finally signs that the needle is starting to move away from full fire suppression and toward more upfront mitigation and prevention work.

Really good timing

On a ridge, a couple thousand feet above Jason Fischer's farm, Clint Isbell, the fire ecologist for the Klamath National Forest, is looking across at the same forested land with a bit more optimism.

Clint Isbell, fire ecologist for the Klamath National Forest, says upfront mitigation work such as fuel breaks and the thinning of "hazardous" brush and small trees can make a difference.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Clint Isbell, fire ecologist for the Klamath National Forest, says upfront mitigation work such as fuel breaks and the thinning of "hazardous" brush and small trees can make a difference.

"We put in these strategic fuel breaks that you can see across the landscape," he says, pointing to the west into a brisk wind. "A lot of them are on ridges."

U.S. taxpayers recently paid to bulldoze and clear out these "strategic fuel breaks," which are built with the intention of slowing down a fire before it reaches homes, communities and critical infrastructure such as powerlines. The idea is that firefighters can then try to at least make a stand in places like this.

A years-long, 10,000-acre hazardous fuels reduction project, including thinning in these rugged mountains and canyons, is ongoing. And to the east, down the mountainside, another federally funded project paid to clear out brush on private land around the perimeter of the town of Yreka, Calif.

Remarkably, that last project was completed just three days before the McKinney Fire ignited.

"Yeah, really good timing," Isbell says.

The agency believes this upfront work may have helped firefighters tackle the McKinney Fire, which is believed to have destroyed more than 100 homes and killed four people. But despite fears, it didn't turn into as bad of an inferno as last summer's Dixie Fire, which burned more than one million acres in northeastern California, or the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire earlier this year that became the largest in New Mexico's history.

"We can't do anything about drought, it's climate change," says Nickie Johnny, an incident commander who managed the McKinney and Calf Canyon fires this summer.

There is growing acknowledgement among veteran managers that these modern wildfires burning amid record heat waves and extreme drought can never be stopped by firefighters alone.

"We just have to figure out how we're going to get out ahead of it or what we're going to do in the aftermath of it," Johnny says.

One recent hot afternoon, as more red flag warnings for extreme fire danger came into effect, Johnny took stock of the conditions that led up to elite teams like hers having to respond to Siskiyou County, Calif., where the McKinney was just one of several fires burning this August. While still too early to assess fully, she suspected some of the upfront mitigation work may have allowed her crews to position in safer places. That allowed them to begin digging a line around the perimeter of parts of the fire, eventually helping to contain it.

Veteran incident commander Nickie Johnny, who leads an elite federal team, says extreme drought made worse by climate change are making for dangerous firefighting conditions.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Veteran incident commander Nickie Johnny, who leads an elite federal team, says extreme drought made worse by climate change are making for dangerous firefighting conditions.

But in extreme drought made worse by climate change, Johnny says preparation work can only go so far. Now the U.S. government and other agencies like Cal Fire have no choice but to throw everything they can at the crisis in the moment. There's just too much at risk, she says, from lives and property to critical watersheds for cities.

At one point, 3,700 firefighters responded to the McKinney Fire.

"We've been focusing on fire suppression [in California] for the last three years because that's where the need is," Johnny says.

Stopping fires is making things worse

Some say we've backed ourselves into this corner.

Firefighters are really good at suppressing almost every wildfire on initial attack, only a few — 3% or less — of ignitions get away and turn into large blazes like McKinney. But every time they stop one, don't they just leave more fuel on the ground for the next fire?

This conundrum is often described as the fire paradox. And there's no easy solution, says forestry professor Andrew Sanchez Meador, who runs the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.

"It took us 150 years to get into this problem , so it's not a problem we're going to get ourselves out of quickly," he says.

But Sanchez Meador is encouraged by what he sees is a paradigm shift starting to happen in the nation's hulking firefighting program, sometimes even dubbed the fire-industrial complex. Last year, the U.S. government spent a record $4.3 billion on fire suppression. But there are now tens of millions of federal and state dollars also going toward upfront mitigation work.

Allow fires to happen without killing everything

Just over the mountains from Yreka, Calif., near the historic gold mining town of Jacksonville, Ore., smoke and haze from the McKinney Fire hangs in the air as Rich Fairbanks steers his small pickup up a winding mountain highway.

Forests with dense stands of trees line the road, up to 300 packed into an acre in places.

"The people that are responsible for the safety of a fire crew, they don't like that at all," Fairbanks says looking up toward the dark woods. " They cannot see that spot fire starting up behind them and maybe trapping their crew."

Fairbanks is a retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter who now runs a small forestry company. They got a grant from the new Infrastructure Law that could make a big difference here. Further up the road, crews have already thinned out trees from private land that's peppered with homes and small outbuildings. The trees are stacked in piles awaiting to be burned this Fall when it's cooler and wetter.

Retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter Rich Fairbanks stands in front of a thinning project funded by the new Infrastructure Law on private land near Jacksonville, Ore.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter Rich Fairbanks stands in front of a thinning project funded by the new Infrastructure Law on private land near Jacksonville, Ore.

"The idea is to make it so that the fires still happen, but they don't kill everything, and burn people up in their cars for heaven's sakes," Fairbanks says.

The thinning is also intended to create a bigger buffer around this already existing fire break — the highway. Fairbanks says a wildfire is probably inevitable here, but a catastrophic blaze with a chaotic evacuation along this road doesn't have to be.

"This [project] is a good use of tax dollars in my opinion," he says.

Everyone along this road signed up for the free treatments. Fairbanks also is encouraged by what he sees as a paradigm shift in state and federal agencies toward prioritizing work like this, and among Westerners who are starting to understand they have to learn to live with wildfires.

But some people still don't get it.

"Unfortunately, there are politicians who make hay out of saying, 'They should put out every single fire all the time forever,' which is just really dumb," Fairbanks says.

For foresters like him, a smarter path is the upfront work like this. It takes longer and doesn't make for dramatic headlines. But it might at least make some of these modern wildfires manageable again.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.