How to win the war against wildfires

Changing tactics can better protect people, land and property from a growing threat

Last year, the U.S. Forest Service spent more money on wildfire suppression and recovery than it ever has before -- $2.4 billion. That’s because today’s wildfires are burning on average more than three times the number of acres per wildfire than just a few decades earlier. Why is this happening? The science is clear. Climate change is bringing longer and more intense wildfire seasons. Fuels are accumulating on forest floors creating unhealthy landscapes flush with overgrown thickets that are more prone to catastrophic fires. This is the situation today, but in the years to come, it’s forecasted to only get worse.

Tougher fires, new strategies

Climate scientists with the U.S. and Canadian Forest Services and University of Idaho estimate that in just a few decades western parts of the U.S. could see up to a six-fold increase in the number of weeks during which weather conditions are favorable for very large fires (those are fires that engulf more than 5,000 hectares). Suppressing fires large and small is becoming increasingly complicated and costly as growing numbers of Americans are establishing homes and businesses away from city centers and into the zones of transition between unoccupied land and human development, known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Increasing densities of people and infrastructure in the WUI requires more firefighting assets to ensure the protection of widely dispersed people and property, which in turn drives up suppression costs. 

It’s a new, complex reality we live in, but it’s one that we can face head on, together. We must revisit aerial firefighting strategies and aircraft mobilization tactics to ensure we are implementing the best, most effective methods to protect people, land and property from wildfires. In our new vision paper, we outline a strategy to better contain wildfires and safeguard funding for forest health programs.

It includes these basic steps: 

  • Use direct, initial air attack strategies that utilize rapid-attack aircraft on the front lines to quickly knock down a fire start

  • Deploy ground fire suppression equipment and personnel in concert with, or just after, these aerial attacks to put out the blaze

  • Use the money saved on shorter suppression missions to fund fuel management programs that remove fuels from forest floors, reducing the wildfire threat for years to come

To learn more, read our full paper on transforming aerial firefighting. 

Brett L’Esperance