- The Washington Times - Monday, September 2, 2019

DENVER — After years of destructive blazes, the U.S. wildfire season has been blessedly below average, and the Trump administration wants to keep it that way.

The Interior Department has undertaken 2,500 fuel mitigation projects in 10 Western states. Officials are working with locals to clear brush, fortify firebreaks and thin overgrown forests on fire-prone public lands in accordance with President Trump’s Dec. 18 executive order on reducing wildfire risk.

Those efforts have benefited from a cool, wet year that has significantly tamped down wildfire outbreaks in the Lower 48.

“There are some areas having some activity, but undeniably it’s not like last year, where extended drought and extended heat were creating substantial fire danger,” said Deb Schweizer, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center. “This year is definitely slower, it’s definitely quieter for I would say most of the United States.”

A big exception is in Alaska, which has extended the end of its fire season from Aug. 31 to Sept. 30 over unprecedented fire risk conditions for Southcentral and the Kenai Peninsula. Wildfires statewide have burned about 250 million acres this year.

While Alaska is abnormally dry, the rest of the country is registering some of the lowest drought conditions since the U.S. Drought Monitor started keeping records in 2000.

“Much of the Lower 48 had a significant snowpack year, a cool spring for much of it, and even getting [early] rain,” Ms. Schweizer said. “So certainly those factors are leading to reduced fire danger.”

The difference is particularly stark in California a year after two record wildfires: the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in state history, which consumed 459,123 acres, and the Camp Fire, the most lethal, which resulted in 86 deaths.

The number of acres torched by wildfire is down 95% from this time last year and down 90% from the five-year average of 268,805, according to figures from Cal Fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Colorado, the number of acres burned is “significantly lower this year in comparison to the previous year,” said Caley Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Colorado had its second-largest wildfire in history last year with the Spring Creek Fire, which burned 108,045 acres and destroyed 140 structures. The human-caused fire erupted in June and was not fully contained until September.

This year, “we have not lost a residence. We have lost sheds, outbuildings and the like, but not a residential property due to wildfire,” Ms. Fisher said.

Not out of the woods

Of course, conditions can change. The Santa Ana winds typically bring hot, dry weather to Southern California in autumn. The extra moisture has produced abundant grasses now drying in the heat, “creating fuel for wildfires,” said Bryan Henry of the National Interagency Fire Center.

That’s where forest management plans like the Interior Department’s come in.

“As stewards of one-fifth of the country’s public lands, primarily in the West, we know that our ability to be prepared for wildfires and reduce their severity is paramount to protecting communities and saving lives,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement. “In collaboration with local, state, and other federal partners, we are using everything in our arsenal to prepare for wildfires this year, treating more than one million acres.”

The president’s executive order said the plan was aimed at reducing wildfires by thinning forest management regulations, though environmental groups accused the administration of trying to muzzle public involvement and boost the timber industry.

Despite those concerns, Mike Anderson, a senior policy analyst for the Wilderness Society, said the Interior Department’s wildfire mitigation activities are unlikely to raise much controversy.

“It’s been a relatively tame wildfire season so far, which has been kind of a relief, and hopefully this will give Interior and the Forest Service a chance to get out ahead of the wildfire problems,” Mr. Anderson said.

In its first year under the order, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management worked on an 85,000-acre project in Montana aimed at reducing wildfire risk by removing trees and brush.

“The project near the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge reduces the risk of catastrophic fires from spreading to local communities,” said the Interior Department press release. “All timber was harvested and supported local economies.”

In Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management recently finished a 286-acre prescribed burn near Bayfield aimed at reducing wildfire risk, reinvigorating grasses, and improving deer and elk habitat.

In Florida, more than 183,000 acres are scheduled to be treated, including prescribed burns and mechanical clearing on 10,500 acres at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Long-term projects are also in the works. In June, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a system of up to 11,000 miles of “strategically placed fuel breaks” to control wildfires on 223 million acres in the Great Basin across six states: Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Utah.

About 4 million acres have burned this year, well below last year’s 6.4 million and the 10-year annual average of 5.3 million, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Although the trend this year is encouraging, analysts warn that it’s too soon to declare the nation out of the woods.

“It would be premature to say that we can walk away from this fire season as a victory,” Ms. Schweizer said. “It’s only August. We’ve got several months of fire season ahead of us.”

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