Most Americans are familiar with TV’s Smokey Bear, shovel in paw, warning, “Only you can prevent wildfires.” No disrespect is meant to the nation’s furry and fretful friend, but the evidence mounts that, despite the government’s best efforts, we can’t halt the conflagrations.
All that is humanly possible in the current climate is tempering the outbreaks and staying away from places prone to becoming flaming hellscapes.
As temperatures hit their mid-summer peaks, the West is suffering its seasonal burn. And for the second year in a row, the East is choking on the smoke. The fires, concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, have blown ash-filled plumes across the nation, immersing New York, Philadelphia and other eastern metropolitan regions in a gray haze.
Residents of eastern cities may be irritated by the poor air quality, but it pales compared to the devastation westerners suffer on the ground-level property.
Thus far, during 2021, more than 3.4 million acres have been charred, or more than 5,300 square miles – an area the size of Connecticut.
With several months remaining until temperatures fall, the damage could match that of 2017, when acreage the dimensions of New Jersey went up in flames.
The disastrous loss is not for lack of effort at fire suppression. The U.S. Forest Service is operating at a preparedness of Level 5 — its highest state of emergency — with more than 21,000 firefighters currently doing battle with 78 large fires in 12 states.
Wildfire-fighting has been frequently hampered, however, by a lack of money. As a remedy, the U.S. Congress passed a so-called “fire-funding fix” in 2018, which allowed federal disaster funds to be shifted into fire suppression starting in fiscal 2020, saving U.S. Forest Service funds for routine functions like park management. And by paying for the thinning of forests, removal of dead trees, and clearing of vegetation away from residential structures, less tinder-dry fuel is available to turn a smoldering ember into an inferno.
Accordingly, the wildfires of 2020 resulted in the smallest scorched acreage in six years, indicating a measure of success. This year, though, is on track to render the “fix” an exercise in futility as the flames defy control.
Living amid the West’s paradises, with the aroma of pine wafting on the cool mountain air is a fond dream that many Americans share.
Those fortunate enough to move into the alpine forests face a nightmare instead when forced to flee for their lives while theirback-country castles burn to the ground.
Human nature is to tame the wilderness, but Mother Nature does not easily submit to civilization. Technological innovations meant to alter the global temperatures by a degree or two aren’t likely to tame climate patterns that sometimes cause both arid and temperate regions to burn.
Realistically, Americans who settle in inhospitable places are as likely to be saved from the wildfires by rain as Uncle Sam’s intervention.