Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Opinion | Our wildfire problem is growing beyond our ability to tame it

Opinion | Our wildfire problem is growing beyond our ability to tame it

Jennifer Balch is a fire scientist and director of the Environmental Data Science Innovation and Inclusion Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The loss of life and property in Lahaina, Hawaii, is shocking even to a fire scientist. I have long assumed the next wildfire disaster was going to be in the super-dry American West, not on the tropical island of Maui. But it is easy to find parallels between the tragedy in Lahaina and the deadly and devastating wildfires that struck the towns of Louisville and Superior in Colorado in 2021, and Paradise in California in 2018. Those two fires resulted in 87 deaths and destroyed thousands of structures.

Wildfire boils down to three ingredients: a warm and dry climate, fuels to burn and a spark. Wind is an accelerant and has been a player in almost all of the recent wildfire disasters. The same is true in Lahaina, but there are some other overlooked factors at work.

The first is grass. Hawaiian ecosystems are not adapted to fire, which means they are vulnerable to wildfires. Invasive species, particularly flammable grasses, push out native species. These nonnative plants, such as guinea grass, fountain grass and molasses grass, can wreak havoc on ecosystems and abandoned agricultural areas, creating a continuous carpet of fine and very flammable fuel.

These grass species also do so well after fire that they can boot out much larger native shrubs and trees. This invasive grass-fire cycle is a national and global phenomenon and a growing problem on the U.S. mainland. Some of the largest fires in the United States are fueled, in part, by invasive cheatgrass, which is known for promoting fire in sagebrush ecosystems common in the West. In Hawaii, nonnative grasses and shrubs now cover about a quarter of the state; just parking a car on a dry patch of tall grass can start a fire.

We’ve also put a lot of homes in the way. Some 59 million homes in the Lower 48 have been built within a kilometer of a past wildfire. Because of where we are building homes — and how we are building them — we are putting people and their property at risk without thinking much about the odds or outcomes. Let’s not forget that humans start the vast majority of wildfires that threaten our homes. In Hawaii, 98 percent of wildfires are human-caused.

Global warming means the scale of the wildfire problem is quickly growing far beyond our capacity to respond. For example, under the terms of the bipartisan infrastructure law, nearly $81 million will go to reducing hazardous fuels and boosting restoration efforts in forests and rangelands. That’s a worthy undertaking — and it sounds like a lot — but it will treat only 2 million acres of wildland this year, a fraction of what remains untreated.

Lahaina confronts an unbearable reality as survivors seek refuge

An even bigger challenge will be in treating the most dangerous urban fuels — our homes. We need to promote fire-resistant materials in our building codes, improve warning systems and work harder to reduce human-started fires. Evacuation routes are an increasingly hard-to-solve problem in the West, where housing growth into remote, flammable places leaves communities at risk. We need to think about ways to shift incentive structures around private development away from fire-prone areas and toward those with multiple exits.

As these challenges mount, it is not too soon to begin debate about a national fire insurance program and to bolster the science that provides risk maps. Just as the federal government insures our farmland from erosion and our communities from floods, we need to increase access to insurance for populations that are now in the path of wildfire. Homeowners in California are increasingly unable to insure their most valuable asset. That’s just not right — and the trend will soon spread to other states.

Sea-level rise and more intense tropical storms are already punishing island communities. Lahaina is a reminder that wildfires are now another warming-influenced hazard with which islands must contend.

Fire is indiscriminate under the right conditions. Our island towns, our mountain towns and our coastal communities are all now vulnerable. We have spent decades loading the dice. How many lives will be lost and homes burned before we invest what’s really needed to create a fire-resilient nation?

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