Particularly in light of California’s recent disastrous Camp and Woolsey wildfires, very few topics are hotter right now than wildfire prevention and management. Acknowledging it is difficult to do, I ask of you, as you read and listen to the following, briefly suspend your political leanings, opinions on climate change, and feelings on the significance of wildfires.
We have to collaborate and commit to specific measures aimed at preventing unwanted wildfires. Statistics provided by Insurance Information Institute show there were 51,898 U.S. wildfires from January 1 to November 15, 2018. That grim calculation includes:
The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history to date. It was also the deadliest wildfire in the United States, since 1918. In reviewing the deadliest wildfires, it was the fifth-deadliest U.S. wildfire of all time. The tragic results were at least 88 civilian fatalities, 12 civilians injured and five firefighters. The resulting destruction encompassed 153,336 acres and destroyed 18,804 structures.
The Woolsey Fire burned 96,949 acres of land. The fire destroyed 1,643 structures, three fatalities, and led to the evacuation of close to 300,000 people.
It was five years ago when I contributed to my first report on wildfires. Prior to beginning my research, I had ignorantly believed wildfires were manageable events overall that happened very occasionally elsewhere.
Back in 2015, while wrapping up a brief report that focused on public sector investment in wildfire prevention, fighting, and recovery, ‘What’s Being Done About Wildfires Threat in United States?’. During development of this report, it finally occurred to me that the wildfire problem is real, it is growing, and it impacts everyone, regardless of your zipcode. What I still did not fully understand, at that point, was the severe, disproportionate emphasis on fire fighting and recovery compared to prevention.
With the above disclaimer revealed, you may be asking the question, rightfully so, “Well, what makes you a self-anointed authority on wildfire prevention, fighting, and recovery?” Valid, excellent question and I could not agree more. So, I reached out to a couple of individuals who are, and have been, in the trenches of California’s wildfire problem and debate. Make note of this date. I spoke with them o/a June 28th, 2018.
Dr. Kate Wilkin, a University of California Forestry/Fire Science and Natural Resource Advisor.
Here, Dr. Wilkin talks about decreasing the threat of wildfires, being prepared, California’s commitment to fire prevention, and projection for wildfire activity from June 2018 to remainder of year.
Excerpt from Dr. Kate Wilkin
Dr. Jon Keeley, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an adjunct professor at UCLA.
Dr. Keeley touched on national fire policy and management, minimizing catastrophic fires, reducing fuels, and fire suppression policy.
Excerpt from Dr. Jon Keeley
Two key quotes from Dr. Keeley:
“In my mind, that’s the thing we should focus on the most, in areas where there’s high population is try and improve fire prevention.”
“One of the things those forests need is better control of fuels in the forested environment.”
Full episode with Dr. Wilkin and Dr. Keeley
You have two noted authorities, nearly five months prior to the Camp and Woolsey fires, calling for action to address the multitude of problems and predicting trouble ahead. Is anyone heeding their words? Ok, I will play along. Is what they are saying worthy of taking decisive action?
Since my conversations with Dr. Wilkin and Dr. Keeley, I visited Southern California (July 2018), to include the areas around Malibu and Point Dume. As we surveyed the areas, I mentioned to a colleague that the presence of the enormous quantity of dry brush, grass and trees, along with the mix of canyons and wind, would be a horrific formula for a hellacious wildfire. Fast forward five months and I wish I had been wrong and the guests on the Jun 28th, 2018 episode had miscalculated.
If you perform your own basic research, you will possibly come to agree with Dr. Wilkin and Dr. Keeley’s suggestion that the focus has been misdirected. Roughly five thousand wildfires per month and many people, not all, continue to be steadfastly focused towards fighting fires and solutions and services dedicated to addressing the aftermath.
So, what about prevention? “Remember…only YOU can prevent forest fires.” We all remember the ‘Smokey Bear’ campaign. A concerned, talking bear, how cute. He was wrong. There, I said it. Fires are needed to clear out old growth and areas packed with potential fuels. Originally, Smokey and his handlers ignored this important point.
The U.S. Forest Service provides this language on the importance of prescribed fires, as an important component of fire management.
From their website:
Did you know fire can be good for people and the land? After many years of fire exclusion, an ecosystem that needs periodic fire becomes unhealthy. Trees are stressed by overcrowding; fire-dependent species disappear; and flammable fuels build up and become hazardous. The right fire at the right place at the right time:
- Reduces hazardous fuels, protecting human communities from extreme fires;
- Minimizes the spread of pest insects and disease;
- Removes unwanted species that threaten species native to an ecosystem;
- Provides forage for game;
- Improves habitat for threatened and endangered species;
- Recycles nutrients back to the soil; and
- Promotes the growth of trees, wildflowers, and other plants;
As Dr. Wilkin pointed out in the long version of our interview above, not all fires are bad and unwelcome. Fires are necessary and helpful in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. The Forest Service manages prescribed fires and even some wildfires to benefit natural resources and reduce the risk of unwanted wildfires in the future. The agency also uses hand tools and machines to thin overgrown sites in preparation for the eventual return of fire.
I am pleased to confirm that some, I typed “some”, are taking action towards fire prevention by managing and controlling the fuels that feed fires. Correct, it is quite painfully obvious not enough is being done.
The following graph illustrates the bid/RFP/solicitation activity originating from Canadian and U.S. federal, state and local agencies targeting services and solutions for reducing or eliminating undergrowth and other origins of fire fuels.
Overall, during this eleven month period which we analyzed, there has been a general decline in total request numbers, after a high of 70+ in January, 2018. In a very random extraction and study of a sample of 120 relevant requests, to our surprise, very few of the pertinent bids originated from within California. Why so few? We know it is not because California is ahead of the game.
While U.S. federal, state, and local agencies are trending downwards in recent months, solicitations from Canada are going up. Why?
Everyone can agree that prevention starts with people. Clearly, people have to be smarter and more careful. According to the U.S. Department of Interior, 90% of wildfires are caused by the acts of humans. However, careless action by a human, lightening, downed power lines, act of God, etc., in the moment, does the victim of a wildfire really care about the fire's origin? Victims would prefer that unwanted wildfires be prevented.
The preceding may compel some to action or continued apathy, others to outrage, others to contact and work with their local private and public sector applicables. It is my hope, that with a little more knowledge and appreciation for the scope of the threat, we will each focus a little more, be more proactive and vocal, work a little harder towards reducing, maybe preventing altogether, the horrific disasters we witnessed last month in California.
To see more of the wildfire-related bids / RFPs, and to access the associated documentation, please call us at 888.808.5356 or visit BidPrime.
*Opinions expressed herein are those of Mr. Bill Culhane and do not necessarily reflect those of BidPrime.