As a U.S. Forest Service firefighter working across the American West for more than a decade, I am ready to focus on preventing fires as much as putting my life on the line to put them out.
I’ve worked on hotshot crews and as a smokejumper — a firefighter that parachutes from airplanes into fires. I’ve worked on fires of every level of complexity, from small fires that grow to an acre or two that are extinguished in a few hours — to 400,000-acre fires that burn until winter arrives.
The truth is fires in the West are increasing markedly in their complexity, intensity and number. Some of this increase can be attributed to the aftereffects of a well-intentioned — but overly aggressive — Forest Service policy that called for the immediate suppression of all fires, even though fire is a natural part of the ecosystem and our forests have evolved in relationship to it. By immediately suppressing all fires, forests became overburdened with excessive fuel, which has led to more intense fires today as a result.
But this does not explain the excessive drought, rising temperatures and extreme weather that have increased fire. These trends are caused by climate change.
Just last week, the White House released the National Climate Assessment — a lengthy report that confirms what many firefighters know firsthand: Climate change has increased wildfires across the West.
And according to a Harvard University study, wildfires will be far more frequent, intense and affect more territory, both habited and open space.
■ the area burned by fires will double;
■ large fires will triple; and
■ the fire season will dominate half the calendar year.
From a firefighter’s point of view, these are terrifying figures.
I know firsthand the massive amount of manpower and equipment required to suppress fires. It is difficult to fathom the costs and the dangers of fire suppression in a future where two times the amount of land will burn. These risks will only increase due to the fact that more and more people are living in the wildland-urban interface.
Climate change no longer is a fringe issue, no longer just the environmentalists from Boulder raising the alarm. It is an issue of deep concern to many, like myself, who live and work in our forests.
On the eve of another fire season in Colorado, it’s time our elected officials start taking it seriously and create meaningful policies that will help us save Coloradans’ homes and lands from destructive wildfire.
Aaron Alpe is a resident of Steamboat Springs.