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The US is spending billions on starting forest fires to stop 'catastrophic' ones

Biden wants to use "prescribed burns" to reduce catastrophic wildfires.
Biden wants to use "prescribed burns" to reduce catastrophic wildfires.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/David Goldman
By Lottie Limb  & AP - Matthew Brown and Jonathan J Cooper

The US will aggressively thin forests on the edge of neighbourhoods vulnerable to wildfires, Biden announced this week.

As climate change dries out the west of the country - leading to fiercer forest fires - officials revealed a $50 (€44) billion plan to more than double the use of controlled fires and logging in the most at-risk areas. They will target trees and other vegetation that could become tinder.

Beginning this year, the US Forest Service will focus on regions where devastating blazes have wiped out houses and sometimes entire communities - including California's Sierra Nevada mountains, the east side of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and portions of Arizona, Oregon and Washington state.

"You're going to have forest fires. The question is how catastrophic do those fires have to be," agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack told the Associated Press. "The time to act is now if we want to ultimately over time change the trajectory of these fires."

The impact is not helped by the fact that homes keep getting built in fire-prone areas, even as conditions that stoke blazes get worse.

It is not clear who will pay for the full scope of work envisioned across almost 200,000 square kilometres - an area around the size of England and Scotland combined. Much of that land is controlled by states, tribes or is privately owned.

Vilsack acknowledged that the new effort will also require a "paradigm shift" within the Forest Service, from an agency devoted to stamping out fires, into one that uses what some Native Americans call "good fire" on forests and rangeland to prevent even larger blazes.

A 10 year plan to tackle wildfires - and save lives over acres

AP Photo/Jonathan J. Cooper
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (second from left) and Forest Service Chief Randy Moore (second from right) discuss forest fires at the Desert Botanical Garden.AP Photo/Jonathan J. Cooper

Speaking at the Desert Botanical Garden - a popular showcase for cactuses, desert trees and other dry-weather plants in Phoenix - on Tuesday, officials said the goal will require an estimated €18 billion over 10 years for work on national forests and €26 billion for work on other lands.

Only some of the work has funding so far, and specific projects have yet to be unveiled. But Forest Service planning documents indicate the work will focus on "hotspots" that make up only 10 per cent of the fire-prone areas across the U.S. but account for 80 per cent of the risk to communities because of their population densities and locations.

Wildfire expert John Abatzoglou said lessening fire dangers on the amount of land envisioned under the administration's plan is a "lofty goal" that represents even more acreage than burned over the past 10 years across the West.

But Abatzoglou, a University of California Merced engineering professor, said the focus on wildfire hazards closest to communities makes sense.

"Our scorecard for fire should be about lives saved rather than acres that didn't burn," he said.

For decades the primary approach to containing and extinguishing forest fires was to try to stamp them out. The efforts have been similar to massive, military-like campaigns, including planes, fleets of heavy equipment and thousands of firefighting personnel and support workers dispatched to the fire zones.

However, fires are a part of the natural cycle for most forests, so putting them out leaves stands of trees that don't burn surrounded by dead wood, underbrush and other highly flammable fuels - a worst-case scenario when blazes ignite.

Noah Berger/AP
Lightning-sparked wildfires in the past two years have killed a minimum of nearly 10,000 giant sequoia trees in California.Noah Berger/AP

Rare winter blazes signal that action is needed now

Dealing with western wildfires is becoming increasingly urgent as they get more destructive and intense. There have been rare winter blazes in recent weeks, including infernos in Montana and Colorado, where a wildfire on 30th December tore through a suburban area and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, leaving one person dead and a second still missing.

And there's no signs of a let-up in conditions that keep the risk of wildfires extremely high. A long-term "megadrought" is gripping the region and scientists forecast temperatures will keep rising as more climate-changing carbon emissions are pumped into the atmosphere.

The impact stretches far beyond the western US because massive smoke plumes at the height of wildfire season in the US and Canada spread the health effects across North America - sending unhealthy pollution last summer to major cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia and Toronto.

Critics say the plan will ‘hurt forests and wildlife’

Not everyone has welcomed the new strategy, however. Critics say the government's plan to use logging to reduce fire damages will hurt both forests and the wildlife and water supplies that depend on them.

In South Dakota's Black Hills, for example, government biologists have said that too many trees dying from a combination of insects, fire and logging have made current timber harvest levels unsustainable.

"The US Forest Service simply cannot log its way out of the climate crisis," said Adam Rissien from the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.

AP/US Forest Service
A firefighter watches flames from the Nethker Fire engulf trees at Payette National Forest in Idaho.AP/US Forest Service

But Vilsack said a combination of tree thinning and intentionally set fires to clear undergrowth - known as ‘prescribed burns’ - will make the forests healthier in the long run while reducing the threat to public safety.

Forests thinned near Lake Tahoe and its tourism gateway community of South Lake Tahoe were credited with slowing the advance of the massive Caldor Fire last summer that destroyed almost 800 homes and prompted evacuations of tens of thousands of residents and tourists.

A similar phenomenon played out during Oregon's Bootleg fire last July, which burned more than 600 square miles (1,500 square kilometers) but did less damage in forest that was thinned over the past decade.

"We know this works," Vilsack said. "It's removing some of the timber, in a very scientific and thoughtful way, so that at the end of the day fires don't continue to hop from tree top to tree top, but eventually come to ground where we can put them out."