HOW THE WEST WAS BURNED

The widespread impact of the 2015 wildfires of the Pacific Northwest
By Jordan Snyder.

In the blink of an eye, hundreds of miles of land can go up in flames. And once the fires are extinguished, the smoke cleared and the ashes are swept away, the effects of wildfires can be both long lasting and far-reaching.

During the wildfire season of 2015, the Pacific Northwest saw the most devastation it has experience in years. California suffered 1,500 more wildfires than it did in 2014, with over 1,000 homes being lost to the fire, eventually prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency. California also experienced one of the fastest moving wildfires in recent history, scorching 40,000 acres in less than 12 hours.

Washington saw a huge boom in the number of acres burned during wildfire season. While the state averaged roughly 190,000 acres burned per year between the year 2005 and 2014, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, Washington lost 1.1 million acres to wildfires in 2015. However, no state was hit harder than Alaska. Of the 9 million acres lost to the wildfires of 2015, 5 million were in Alaska. To put that in perspective, Alaska lost the equivalent of the state of New Jersey and Connecticut combined.

The wildfires burned through more than just acreage though, they burned through taxpayer dollars as well. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the cost of battling the blazes of 2015 amounted to roughly $200 million per week. And for the first time in the 110 years since its founding, they had to use more than 50 percent of their yearly budget to fight the infernos – to the detriment of other U.S. Forest programs in place to prevent forest fires, such as forest-thinning projects. Just 20 years ago, fire fighting only took up 16 percent of their budget.

The irony of having to take funds away from programs that prevent wildfires to keep up with the cost of putting out wildfires is not lost on anyone. According to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, this ongoing budget imbalance could be fixed by treating wildfires like natural disasters, such as tornadoes or hurricanes, instead of treating catastrophic wildfires as normal agency expenses.

“Climate change and other factors largely beyond our control are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year,” Vilsack said in a statement, “but the way we fund our Forest Service, which we can control, hasn’t changed in generations.”

Thanks largely in part to climate change driving up temperatures and increasing wildfire risk, today’s wildfire season lasts 78 days longer than it did in the 70s. During that wildfire season, much can be lost. Homes are destroyed, lives are taken and land is devastated, but many people don’t realize that the ripple effect of a wildfire can impact so many more things. Here’s what the 2015 fires could mean for 2016.

LUMBER PRICES COULD INCREASE
When wildfires strike, the first industry affected by their blaze is the logging industry. Not only do the fires destroy acres of timber and take away potential revenue, but they can also easily disrupt harvest schedules as the access to acreage, logging roads and permits can be cut off during wildfire season due to safety concerns.

After Washington reached Level 4 of the Industrial Fire Precaution Levels (IFPL), the highest alert level, logging operations in the Eastern part of the state were temporarily shut down for the first time in 20 years. This halt in production could contribute to higher timber prices in the future. According to staffers at RISI homebuilders should expect the prices of all kinds of lumber to rise over the next two years.

While the wildfires may burn many of the trees that were going to be harvested, all is not lost for loggers once the fire dies down. Once it’s safe to venture in to the woods, salvage loggers have a short amount of time to find usable tinder and get it ready for the market. While some salvaged timber will be turned in to pulp to use in paper, some will be in good enough shape to sell once the burnt parts are cut away. If salvage loggers wait too long, they risk the wood losing its moisture or possible insect infestation.

That’s why it only took the state of Idaho six weeks to get through the salvaging process after 72,000 acres of their endowment land was burned. Idaho officials held 15 salvage sales toward the end of 2015 in an attempt to recoup some of their profits. While some salvage logging can produce up to 60 percent of the expected revenue before the fires, Idaho was only able to salvage roughly 80 million board feet, which would be about 33 percent of their expected volume for the year.

RANCHERS COULD GO BROKE FEEDING LIVESTOCK
It wasn’t just trees that were burned in the fires of 2015, Idaho, Oregon and Washington cattle ranchers had to deal with fires devastating the lands that their livestock depend on for food. Without the pastures to roam, many ranchers are faced with a tough decision: pay for hay or reduce their livestock. With hay costing $100 to $200 and cows eating an average of half a ton of hay per month, many ranchers feel that their hands are tied.

While killing off some of their livestock can save a rancher on the cost of their food, they’ll take an economic hit in the long run. Many ranchers spend years breeding cows that are tough enough to withstand life on the open range, and being forced to kill them robs the ranchers of their future calves and continuing the bloodline.

CALIFORNIA WINE COULD TASTE LIKE A WET ASHTRAY
According to the Wine Institute, California is responsible for 90 percent of all wine produced in America. And while many vineyards weren’t lost in the fire, the lingering smoke can have a dramatic effect on flavor profiles of the upcoming harvest. It’s called “Smoke Taint” and once the thin skin of the grape is infected, it’s impossible to get the taste out.

While some wines will boast an oaky, smoky finish, this kind of smoke could leave your Merlot tasting like a wet ashtray. That’s what happened to pinot noirs from Mendocino’s Anderson Valley after the fires of 2008 burned 54,000 acres and left thick smoke looming over the valley for weeks.

One Sonoma-based vintner, who as an independent consultant asked not to be named due to confidentiality agreements with clients, told the Guardian: “It’s a really big concern for a lot of these vineyards who are near fires and all that smoke because for red grapes, where the skin is still used in the winemaking process, that smoke could potentially infuse and create abnormal flavors.”

SMALL FARMS GOT HIT THE HARDEST
Overall, crops will be fine in the coming year as any large-scale farms partially damaged in the fires were able to recoup after a slight break in production. However, for smaller farmers who had their harvest wiped out, recovery won’t be easy.

In particular, the medical marijuana industry of California has taken a huge blow during these fires. Several of the largest fires in California this year, such as the Butte Fire in Calaveras County and Rocky Fire and Valley Fire in Lake County, occurred in prime areas for growing medical marijuana. According to International Business Times, those in the cannabis industry estimate that roughly 100 farms were lost and millions in profits. There’s a possibility that this will affect marijuana prices, but it is not likely as California produces more cannabis than there is a demand for.

This fire is going to have more individual impact on those unlucky enough to have lost their entire crop right before harvest season. In an up and coming industry largely based on grower/seller relationships, having to take a year off to regrow their crops can lead to numerous lost contacts within the industry. And with California voting on full legalization this year, it’s a bad time for any cannabis farm to lose its foothold in the industry.

In addition to many small farms taking a financial hit, farm workers from all over the Pacific Northwest are feeling the after burn of these fires. While the increasing heat was already impacting the amount of time they could spend outside, and thus decreasing the hours they’d get paid for, the lingering smoke could make their paychecks even smaller. The smoke’s impact on air quality can cause evacuations, disrupt the harvest and curtail fieldwork, causing financial hardships for the farm workers.

SATELLITES COULD SAVE US
The increasing frequency of these fires coupled with the widespread devastation that they cause has inspired many to look for a solution to this problem. While it has been established that global warming played an integral part in these fires, that’s not a problem that can be easily fixed.

Instead, today’s minds are focusing on containment and prevention. Most recently, in November of 2015, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California announced that they were in the midst of developing a global satellite network that could revolutionize our response time to wildfires.

“Wildfires can wreak havoc on human health, property and communities, so it’s imperative to detect them as early as possible,” the release said. “That’s why NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, is working on a concept for a network of space-based sensors called FireSat in collaboration with Quadra Pi R2E, San Francisco.”

While many fires are called in to 9-1-1 as soon as they’re seen, wildfires can often start in remote areas, going undetected until it starts to gain speed. With FireSat, a network of over 200 thermal infrared imaging sensors on satellites are utilized to detect fires spanning a minimum of 35 to 50 feet within 15 minutes of them starting.

With new innovations coming out to try to combat the issue of wildfires, it seems that this senseless devastation may return to manageable numbers in the years to come. Until then, all we can do is try to rise to from the ashes and rebuild before a spark ignites wildfire season again next year.

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