Architects of Our Own Danger

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Jerry Williams speaks at the Large Wildland Fires Conference in Missoula, Montana.

This article was originally published on Wildfire Magazine’s website

Jerry Williams, retired U.S. Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation Management, kicked off the Large Wildland Fires Conference on Tuesday with a presentation titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Growing Wildfire Threats and the Urgency to Adapt Protection Strategies.”

“High cost, high loss wildfires — at unprecedented scales — are becoming a new normal, especially in the West,” said Williams, noting that seven of the 11 Western states have experienced their worst wildfires on record in the last two decades, some more than once.

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A slide from Williams’ presentation shows the rise in acres burned by wildfires in the western United States over the last half century.

According to Williams, despite accounting for only one to two percent of all starts, large wildfires consume around 95 percent of total acres burned and 85 percent of wildfire suppression costs. In addition, he said that 70 to 80 percent of wildfire fatalities occur during extended attacks, fires that cannot be controlled by initial attack resources.

Williams criticized current wildfire management policy, citing a report from last year by the Government Accountability Office that concluded that the United States’ wildland firefighting culture “values experience and history over data and scientific analysis.”

He called for a more balanced strategy, using better analysis and accounting to move wildland firefighting in a direction that values wildfire prevention as well as suppression. By devoting more resources to mitigation strategies, such as fuels reduction, Williams believes we can make strides towards reducing the financial, ecological, and human costs associated with wildfire in the long-term.

“We overlook that these extraordinary wildfires usually trace to a serious, but unrecognized land management problem,” said Williams. “The large fire phenomenon is often less about how we fight fire than how we attend to fire-dependent forests.”

On our current path, Williams believes that, while once unthinkable, a one million acre, one billion dollar wildfire is possible in the near future.

“Although some might dismiss this as ‘eco-babble,’ we cannot bemoan these wildfires’ costs, losses, and damages,” he said. “These wildfires did not ‘just happen,’ they have been incubating for over a century.”

In closing, Williams quoted Jorge Castro, the mayor of Valparaíso, Chile, which experienced a large wildfire just last month that claimed 15 lives and at least 2,500 homes.

“We have been the architects of our own danger.”

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