The Union of Concerned Scientists reviewed recent wildfires in the west. One of the concerns they raised was that increased forest fires are both a climate change and a man-induced issue. Wildfires on federal land has increased 75% on federally owned land. Fire impacted areas are larger and impact more development which encroaches on those federal holdings. We spend over $1 billion in fire fighting on federal lands each year. But why?
Because many of the forest are in mountainous areas, fire season starts earlier in year with less mountain snowfall. And that is most years as snowfall accumulation decrease. Temperatures are warmer, earlier with shortens the snow season. Water runs off faster. Of course the fact that we altered management philosophies to prevent all forest fires didn’t help because some burning is natural each year. As a result there is a huge reserve of unburned land out west. The beetles did not help either as they left millions of acres of dead trees on mountain sides from Canada to New Mexico. Beetle infestation is clearly climate change driven.
The solutions are more difficult. Building up next to federal land needs to be restricted. Regulations in dealing with trees, bushes and underbrush in fire prone areas need to be enacted and enforced. Early spring fires set as control burns need to happen more frequently. But these are all local responses to a global climate problem. That response is currently lacking. These are leadership issues.
From a utility perspective, this issue may be significant. We like those high, clean mountain streams. But after a forest fire, those streams are often warmer and less clean. The soot, ash and runoff from now barren land can create significant impacts on water plant, create major treatment alterations, increase costs, and risk contamination. A friend some years ago suggested that utilities were instruments of social change. The fact that we have treated water and sewer creates social change. We need to protect water supplies and therefore we should be a part of the conversation on land use. That requires some leadership.