Natural disasters: Agencies continue to fight record-setting wildfires
The U.S. is seeing an increasing number of wildfires each year as severe drought continues to impact many Western states and changes in temperature and snowmelt continue to fluctuate. Due to these conditions, wildfire seasons are lengthening and becoming more of a year-round issue.
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy typically starts its North American wildfires profile in the summer or fall, but the organization now runs their wildfire profile by calendar year due to losing the concept of “disaster seasons.”
“Two significant winter fires in Colorado and California, along with dozens of smaller fires, have led to statistics far exceeding what typically happens at this point in the year,” they say.
These changing wildfire patterns pose a threat to civilians, animals and the environment.
As of July 5, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), “Currently, 54 large fire and complexes have burned 2,692,500 acres in 10 states. Since Jan. 1, wildfires have burned 4,582,301 acres. This is the most acres burned in the past 10 years.”
To put this into perspective, from Jan. 1 to July 5, over four million acres have burned in the U.S., compared to 1,555,291 acres during this same timeframe in 2021 and 1,492,543 acres in 2020, states the NIFC.
States currently reporting large wildfires in the U.S. are Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Nevada, California, Oregon and Wyoming.
The Sandy Fire located southwest of Bondurant in the Bridger-Teton National Forest was initially reported on June 28, and the cause of the fire is still under investigation.
A U.S. Forest Service (USFS) press release on July 1 stated, “The fire danger rating is at moderate for the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Resources include a 20-person type two handcrew, a type one Hotshot crew, a type one helicopter and two engines. The type three incident management team and support resources assumed command on July 2. Additional resources have been ordered.”
The NIFC states as of July 5, the fire is 70 percent contained and has burned 102 acres.
The Hermits Peak Fire located 12 miles northwest of Las Vegas, N.M. started on April 6 after a USFS prescribed burn got out of control. The fire later merged with the Calf Canyon Fire to become New Mexico’s largest fire in history.
President Biden issued a major disaster declaration for New Mexico on May 4. Biden amended the declaration on June 11 and authorized an increase in the level of federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures.
“Under the president’s order, the federal share for debris removal and emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance, has been increased to 100 percent of the total eligible costs for the first 90 days of the incident period,” a statement from the White House says.
According to NIFC, as of July 5, the fire has burned 341,735 acres and is 93 percent contained.
Costs and management
USFS works to manage and prevent fires, not just suppress them. Scientists study the behavior of fire and strive to create management plans to better manage and prevent wildfires.
“USFS understands fire has a role in nature – one that can lead to healthy ecosystems. So, we look for ways to manage it to play its role, for instance, by igniting prescribed fires,” the USFS states.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, between 1980 and 2020, the U.S. had 18 wildfire events causing more than $1 billion in damage; 15 of those have occurred since the year 2000.
NIFC states in 2021, federal firefighting costs of almost $4.4 billion were spent on suppression alone, with a five-year average of almost $2.9 billion per year.
Fire retardant is a common tool used by the USFS to put out fires. It contains salts which alter the way the fire burns, decreasing intensity and slowing the advance of the fire.
The USFS used more than 50 million gallons of retardant for the first time in 2020, and it exceeded 50 million gallons again in 2021. The fire retardant costs those two years reached nearly $200 million.
Over the previous 10 years, the agency used 30 million gallons annually. There are concerns over the cost of retardant and possible environmental impacts.
New retardant studies
The USFS is testing a magnesium-chloride-based retardant from the company called Fortress. Fortress contends its retardants are effective and better for the environment than products offered by the current supplier of the USFS, Perimeter Solutions.
Fortress says retardant made from magnesium chloride is more environmentally friendly and less greenhouse-gas producing than mining and processing ammonium phosphate which is used in most other fire retardants.
“It’s time for a meaningful change in the technology we use to fight wildfires,” Fortress says. “Fortress is the only alternative to fertilizer-based fire retardants, and the first new entrant in the industry in over 20 years.”
Although Fortress claims to offer a more advanced product, Perimeter Solutions ensures their product fulfills its duties and is environmentally friendly.
“Perimeter Solutions is committed to total customer satisfaction by delivering complete solutions which exceed expectations,” states their website. “We bring the safest, most effective and environmentally friendly products along with fast, responsive and exceptional service. We leverage a long history of technology leadership to design materials and solutions for superior ease of use, seamless supply and best overall performance.”
Tests this summer will be limited to single-engine airtankers flying out of a base in Ronan, Mont.
Kaitlyn Root is an editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.