Lahaina Disaster Won’t Be the Last

Will Historic Death Tolls Become the Norm?

How many gut-wrenching death tolls headlines does it take before we make funding forest management a higher national priority? The horrific Lahaina wildfire deaths once again should call us to action.  However, despite alarm bells screaming from both the Lahaina wildfire event and the recent smoke from Canadian wildfires impacting 68 million Americans, Congress continues to sleep through this crisis.


Unanswered Alarms

Prior alarm bells also went unanswered. The Paradise fire in California in 2018 caused 85 deaths. The Grizzly Flats wildfire in the Lake Tahoe area in 2021 destroyed the entire town. The Marshall fire Boulder in 2022 eviscerated over 1000 structures.  Each of these events cost billions of dollars in damages resulting in higher home insurance and utilities costs. Loss of life cannot be tolerated. And these are just examples of what the future holds.

The US Forest Service now estimates that 40 million residences, in 70,000 communities 1 face wildfire risk. Moreover, according to a 2019 GAO report, 100 million acres 2 of US forests (about the size of California) have been under-managed by the federal agencies responsible.

The forests can be likened to your own backyard garden. They require care including pruning, clearing away dead and decaying leaves, treating insect damage, and removing dead plants and trees. Forests also require thinning to remove tree density levels, clear out forest floor fuels such as dead, decaying, and insect-infested trees while restoring watersheds. Warmer temperatures, drier and less humid conditions make forests tinderboxes for lightning strikes; and lightning causes about 65% of wildfires in the West.


Put the Fire Out First

But instead of instituting a holistic “first, put out the fire, then actively manage our forests practice,” the US Forest Service adopts, at best, a tepid Wildfire Crisis Strategy in January 2022.3 It calls for a de-emphasis of wildfire suppression actions while increasing its forest thinning effort by 1.2 million acres a year.  An incremental 1.2 million acres barely puts a dent in the 100 million acres needing immediate active forest management.

Furthermore, a little digging into the US Forest Service’s own website tells us that insects destroy 5 to 7 million forest acres each year.  Simple math means the GAO estimate of 100 million acres of forest at risk will only grow.  As will annual wildfire events. Some experts believe we could see a 50% increase in severe wildfire incidents by 2050.

Inadequate Funding

Despite decades of deferred maintenance causing heightened risk to the 70,000 communities called out by the US Forest Service, Congress refuses to adequately fund meaningful wildfire and forest management practices. Proportionately the average American spends 250 times more to care for their own backyard gardens each year than the Congress and State legislators spend as stewards to care for and manage our forests. Even countries like China, Russia, Spain, and Australia spend more of their national budgets on their forests than does the United States.

In 2014, the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization called out the wildfire risk to Lahaina.  Among other recommendations, it described the need for faster response capabilities and more aggressive landscape management to help shield this fire prone area from severe wildfire risk resulting from winds funneled through Maui’s mountain terrains. Despite these prescient findings, state officials could not find the funding needed to implement these recommendations.  Wouldn’t the cost to adopt the recommendations been far less than the loss of almost 100 lives and billions of dollars in property losses?

And just like the Lahaina recommendations made back in 2014, after decades of studies, commission reports, GAO reports, and annual Congressional hearings, Congress refuses to adequately fund forest as good stewards, despite horrific events like Lahaina.

We must restore our forests using sound forest sustainability practices.  Native American tribes have been doing that for hundreds of years. More importantly, we understand forest management isn’t without cost.  But shifting priorities for the substantial funding required must be a priority – not just for our treasured forests but for our health from inhaling carcinogenic wildfire smoke as well.

We need to immediately prioritize our forest management and funding policies. This must include consideration of novel public-private partnerships and involvement of Indigenous forest management practices to provide the resources required. Otherwise, wildfire events, such as Lahaina, may soon be sounding the alarm in your community.

Mr. Auchterlonie is co-author of “Running Out of Time. Wildfires and Our Imperiled Forests,” a book chronicling their 10 years of research into forest management policy and practices.


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