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Climate Change Is Not The Only Reason For Record Wildfires


The wildfires on the West Coast are again putting the spotlight on climate change. But it is not the only reason why we are seeing such destruction, even in the iconic and typically wet woods of the Pacific Northwest. For more, we've got NPR's Kirk Siegler, who has covered wildfires for this network for more than a decade. Kirk, hi.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we know that the forests and the brush and the grasses in the West are extraordinarily dried out because of climate change. Kind of remind us how we got here.

SIEGLER: Well, right. There are a couple other big things going on here that we have to consider. And one is that we've also spent the last century stamping out wildfires, and we actually continue to do this today. It's just the few that get away that are in the news. And healthy forests need fire. And what we've gotten ourselves into is what the experts call the wildfire paradox. So by doing this, we're actually making the problem worse because now the forests and the brush lands are overgrown and in this real unnatural state. So you add climate change to that mix, and it's the worst-case scenario that we're seeing right now.

MARTIN: We hear the U.S. Forest Service often referred to as the fire service because so much of their budget goes to fighting fires, not actual forest management work. But hasn't the federal government and individual states - haven't they made some progress in doing some prevention work?

SIEGLER: Not very much. You know, the people who say the government isn't doing enough to manage these forests, to some extent, have a point. But a lot of that actually comes down to funding. If you're spending all of your resources on trying to stop wildfires from burning into whole towns, then there's not going to be a lot of money left over to do the things like the thinning projects, the prescribed burns, the planned burning.

Forester Andrew Sanchez Meador has been keeping close tabs on this, where all the states are with their prevention work. He heads the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.

ANDREW SANCHEZ MEADOR: In California and Oregon, the treatments that they've been implementing for years haven't really been at the scale they need to be to offset a wind-driven, climate change-exacerbated event.

SIEGLER: Some of this has to do with money, he says, and the lack of a real, big, clear national strategy. But it's more complicated than just blaming the Forest Service or the firefighting apparatus in the country or, frankly, as the Trump administration likes to do, try to just make this about logging and logging only.

MARTIN: We are now seeing, though, these fires - they've destroyed whole communities. It doesn't seem quite adequate to call them forest fires anymore. I mean, these are burning up residential areas, urban settings.

SIEGLER: That's right. And here's where things get really messy. On the West Coast in particular, there's been this huge amount of development into the forests - that you say - that are now very vulnerable to burning, especially with climate change. Now, in some cases, people have to live in these places 'cause it's the only place they can afford. But regardless, all these subdivisions, these new towns, are actually becoming the fuel that's helping make these fires even bigger. And local building codes are still pretty loose.

Kimiko Barrett I talked to about this. She's at the research firm Headwaters Economics. And she told me that counties still don't really have any disincentive to stop this development because of one big reason.

KIMIKO BARRETT: When you look at when a wildfire does occur, it's the federal government that comes in and pays for that suppression cost. So there's this inverse fiscal incentive on what is happening at that local scale versus who's actually paying for the wildfire costs.

MARTIN: So, basically, local communities - they don't have to pay for the cleanup; the federal government does it. So they make money when these developments keep getting built.

SIEGLER: Exactly. And there's no disincentive, like she says, because they know the federal government is going to come in and pay for the suppression and the cleanup. But at some point, you look at all of the disasters happening at once - we're in the middle of hurricane season, and we're not even really at the peak of wildfire season in California - there's going to become a point where this just isn't going to be sustainable anymore.

MARTIN: NPR's Kirk Siegler reporting from Boise, Idaho. Thanks so much, Kirk.

SIEGLER: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.