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You're fired! What President Trump should know about wildfires

Speed read
  • Environmental management insights from Naomi Tague.
  • Wildfires and droughts will likely increase as climate change accelerates.
  • President Trump should avail himself of the forest management tools already in place.

The US general election has come to a close, and Donald Trump has won the presidency. His decisions will have a profound effect on science and its role in social and evironmental management.

Science Node has solicited opinions from leading thinkers from across the scientific domains, and is hosting their advice to the next POTUS.

In this fourth and final installment, Naomi Tague from the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management lays out the challenges imposed by and possible responses to climate change-fueled wildfires and droughts.

The right choices could save lives and millions of dollars.

What would you have President Trump know about wildfires in the US?

As we look toward a Trump presidency, Mr. Trump should be aware that there has been an increasing trend in large wildfires in much of the western US in recent decades. Direct federal costs for fire suppression (firefighting, crews, fire engines, etc.) now exceed $4 billion (€3.66) per year. The actual costs of the effects of fire (loss of homes, forests, water supply) are typically much larger. 

President Trump also needs to know that over the last decades we have seen record climatic droughts worldwide. The recent California drought led to widespread restrictions in water use and more than a billion dollars in lost agricultural revenues.

<strong>Naomi Tague </strong> — one of the principal developers of <a href= 'http://fiesta.bren.ucsb.edu/~rhessys/'>Regional Hydro-Ecologic Simulation System (RHESSys),</a> an integrated model designed to provide science-based information about spatial patterns of ecosystem health and vulnerability. Courtesy Naomi Tague.

Fire and drought also have dramatic impacts on the health of forested landscapes and the range of services they provide, including water supply, fisheries, timber, habitat provision, and recreation. The recent drought in the western US has led to widespread reductions in forest productivity and increased forest mortality, in part through fire, but primarily by increasing the vulnerability of forests to insects and disease.

Fire and drought are invariably linked. Fires are larger and more severe following droughts. Fires in turn dramatically alter the form and type of vegetation on the landscape, the amount of water that vegetation uses, and the quality of water that reaches groundwater and surface water resources.  

President Trump should allocate resources now for the likely contingency that fires and drought will continue to increase in frequency and severity, particularly in the western US.

In the face of the expected high costs of fire and associated droughts, what can the President direct scientists to do?

Perhaps the most obvious answer is to invest in increasing our resilience to future fires and droughts. This type of investment ranges from efforts to reduce home losses at the wildland-urban interface by enacting zoning restrictions, to improving water use efficiency and access to alternative water sources in order to reduce vulnerability to water supply reductions.

We can leverage recent advances in remote sensing, HPC modeling, field instrumentation, and resource economics to provide information about when and where forest management practices are likely to be more effective.

Rather than thinking of these phenomena as unlikely exceptions to the norm, President Trump can recognize that fire and droughts are inevitable. Further, he can heed the scientific consensus that, due to climate change, fires and droughts are likely to increase in severity and frequency.

The President can look to the example of other countries — Australia, Israel, for example — that have made substantial gains in these areas. The US can learn from them.

The US also has a wealth of resources — academic, private, and government interdisciplinary research — at the President’s disposal that could support these efforts.

What else besides enhancing our resilience can the President do in response to increasing wildfires and droughts?

While efforts to increase our societal resilience to fire and drought are primary, we may also be able to manage landscapes in ways that reduce the severity of droughts and fire. Management, particularly of forest landscapes, can potentially alter ecosystem water use, drought vulnerability, and responses to fires. 

<strong>Playing with fire.</strong> Climate change is accelerating wildfires, with an extra two months now added to wildfire season. Scientifically based environmental regulations can save lives and property. Will President Trump enact them? Courtesy Union of Concerned Scientists.

In recent years, there has been widespread discussion about the role of fuel treatments — forest thinning and controlled burns or, more rarely, the strategic conservation of particular forest species. 

These approaches will not eliminate the most severe fires, nor increase water supply in extreme droughts, but they may be able to reduce impacts of frequent, less severe fires and droughts. Given the high costs even a moderate reduction in fire severity or small increases in streamflow or forest productivity during drought would have widespread benefits and could save millions of dollars.

What challenges are forest managers facing?

Unfortunately, research on when and how forest management practices mitigate drought and fire vulnerability remains limited. Where research exists, it shows conflicting responses – both increases and decreases in streamflow following thinning and a wide range of ecosystem productivity following thinning.

This diversity of responses reflects the diversity in nature – locations differ in climate, underlying geology and forest species — and reflect other factors that determine forest water use and growth and forest sensitivity to climate and drought and management practices. 

How can the President tackle these challenges?

To understand how drought, fire, and forest management interact in different places, we need improved science-based information. Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch.

<strong>Living with fire.</strong> Wildfires are increasing, and threaten lives and property. Tools and techniques are in place to help President Trump manage environmental resources. Will he use them? Courtesy Jeff Head.

President Trump needs to know that we can leverage and synthesize recent advances in satellite and remote sensing of vegetation processes, high-performance computer simulation modeling, field instrumentation, and resource economics. Using existing tools, we can develop a comprehensive picture of how forest management practices influence forest processes – a picture that can provide information to the President about when and where practices are likely to be more effective.

Society has limited resources to address threats of fire and drought, but without a deeper understanding of how forest management practices influence local systems, it is likely that we may spend those resources inefficiently and will pay the costs.

But if we can improve how we harness data, link it with models and then tailor the presentation of results to specific users, President Trump can make better, more cost-effective decisions about how we manage forests in the face of drought and fire.

For more on Professor Tague and the RHESSys model, see our wildfire modeling story here.

Check out part one,  part two, and part three of our unsolicited advice to the next POTUS series.

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