Boul­der au­thor warns of dan­ger of “megafires”

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Char­lie Bren­nan

BOUL­DER» As the sev­enyear an­niver­sary of the dev­as­tat­ing Fourmile Canyon fire ap­proaches, a new book by a Boul­der au­thor ad­vances the propo­si­tion that so-called “megafires” have be­come far more com­mon and for sev­eral rea­sons will likely only be­come more so.

The book is “Me­gafire,” by Michael Ko­das, to be pub­lished Aug. 22 by Houghton

Mif­flin Har­court. Michael Ko­das Ko­das is the deputy di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Colorado.

The Na­tional In­ter­a­gency Fire Cen­ter in Boise, Idaho, de­fines a “me­gafire” as a blaze more than 100,000 acres in size, but Ko­das doesn’t be­lieve it’s quite that sim­ple.

He be­lieves the Fourmile Fire of Septem­ber 2010, which claimed 169 struc­tures — but burned a far more mod­est 6,181 acres — qual­i­fies for the la­bel.

“I kind of came to the per­sonal con­clu­sion that there are lots of small fires that be­have dif­fer­ently than they have in the past, and con­sume or de­stroy a lot of homes or de­stroy a lot of the in­fra­struc­ture we de­pend on, de­stroy habi­tat for en­dan­gered species, or kill peo­ple, or kill fire­fight­ers, that are prob­a­bly more ‘mega’ than a fire that de­stroys 100,000 acres in a re­mote wilder­ness, where fires have burned like that for­ever,” Ko­das said on Thurs­day.

“In the sense that it de­stroyed any num­ber of homes, and it caused all kinds of en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems that trick­led down to the city of Boul­der, the im­pact of the Fourmile Canyon fire is def­i­nitely mega,” he said.

Even us­ing only the strict barom­e­ter of 100,000-plus acres as the qual­i­fier, Ko­das found that be­fore 1995, the United States av­er­aged one me­gafire a year.

Be­tween 2005 and 2014, the num­ber jumped to 9.8 per year. And, since the 1990s, the fed­eral price tag for fight­ing such fires leaped from $300 mil­lion a year to $3 bil­lion an­nu­ally.

In the book’s pro­logue, Ko­das writes, “I also came to see that de­spite the size and fe­roc­ity of the last decade’s fires, the big­gest and bad­dest of them all are still to come.”

In 2015, for the first time, wild­fires af­fected more than 10 mil­lion acres of U.S. forests.

“Fire sci­en­tists anticipate that within a few years, 12 to 15 mil­lion acres a year will burn, and U.S. For­est Ser­vice re­searchers warn that by mid-cen­tury, that num­ber could reach 20 mil­lion — an area nearly the size of Maine,” Ko­das writes.

Ko­das sees four fac­tors that play into the surge in such fires, which very broadly can be bro­ken down into for­est man­age­ment poli­cies, in­creased devel­op­ment in the wild­lands-ur­ban in­ter­face, global warm­ing and po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic de­ci­sion­mak­ing.

He sees some of those fac­tors as ir­re­versible on any im­me­di­ate ba­sis.

“We’ve got a cen­tury of cli­mate change al­ready built into the sys­tem, just from the emis­sions we have al­ready re­leased,” he said in an in­ter­view. “I don’t think we’re going to see a quick re­ver­sal of cli­mate change, from any pol­icy we have im­ple­mented . ... We’ve got a lot of cli­mate im­pact com­ing into our forests. That’s in the sys­tem, on the con­veyer belt, and that’s def­i­nitely going to ar­rive.”

But he does see some prom­ise in both pol­icy and prac­tice that can both be changed, or im­proved, to mit­i­gate the dam­age of fu­ture fires. For ex­am­ple, he pointed to the find­ings of the 2012 Fourmile Canyon fire study re­leased by the U.S. For­est Ser­vice.

“The re­port showed that some 80 per­cent of the homes burned from ground fires,” he said. “Af­ter the fire, there were aerial pho­tos and other stud­ies which showed we had hun­dreds or thou­sands of slash piles left ly­ing on the ground” af­ter thin­ning by gov­ern­ment crews or prop­erty own­ers.

“If you don’t re­move the fuel al­to­gether from the for­est, you may be re­mov­ing the haz­ard around the house, but you make the ground fires worse. You haven’t re­moved the haz­ard; you’ve ac­tu­ally just changed it.”

He made the anal­ogy of the dif­fer­ence be­tween treat­ing an ill­ness with surgery ver­sus do­ing so with a med­i­ca­tion.

“A lot of peo­ple kind of see those (for­est man­age­ment) ac­tiv­i­ties as surgery, a one-time thing. They think, ‘If I just go and cut these trees down ...’ But it’s a lot more like tak­ing a pill, as you would take for a chronic ill­ness. You’ve got to keep work­ing on that. You’re prob­a­bly going to have to do that ev­ery year. And if you are not, you are not mit­i­gat­ing the haz­ard on the level you have to.”

As a for­mer re­porter at the Hart­ford Courant, now an aca­demic charged with the ed­u­ca­tion of fel­low jour­nal­ists, Ko­das — also an in­struc­tor at CU — is con­scious of the bound­aries be­tween strictly ob­jec­tive news writ­ing and ad­vo­cacy.

“As a jour­nal­ist, I am a very strong ad­vo­cate for trans­parency in gov­ern­ment, and I con­sider my­self an ad­vo­cate for the First Amend­ment and free­dom of the press, and I am an ad­vo­cate for re­spon­sive­ness for agen­cies that use tax­payer dol­lars in re­port­ing how they spend that money,” Ko­das said.

He sees “Me­gafire” as an ar­gu­ment for a wiser use of tax­payer dol­lars in so­ci­ety’s ap­proach to man­ag­ing a nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non just about as old as the planet it­self.

Mark Leff­in­g­well, Daily Cam­era

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