Robert Gehrke: A changing climate demands a holistic response to preventing wildfires — not a partisan one

FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2020, file photo, a firefighter battles the Creek Fire as it threatens homes in the Cascadel Woods neighborhood of Madera County, Calif. This year's fires have taxed the human, mechanical and financial resources of the nation's wildfire fighting forces to a degree that few past blazes did. And half of the fire season is yet to come. (AP Photo/Noah Berger,File)

If you haven’t seen the destruction from the California and Oregon wildfires, you’ve certainly breathed it, as the thick clouds of smoke have once again drifted over our state.

In Oregon, Washington and California, more than 5 million acres have burned, tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, more than 6,300 structures have been destroyed, and nearly three dozen people have been killed with many more still missing.

Here at home, Utah crews are dealing with our state’s daunting fire situation.

Brian Cottam, Utah’s forester, told me that, as of Monday, there have been nearly 1,300 fires that have burned 252,751 acres. That’s already 65,000 more acres than have burned in the average fire year since 2002, with an estimated million acres still categorized as high risk and weeks, if not months, left in the fire season.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

As with everything, COVID-19 has played a role. Cottam said people are looking for an escape and heading to the forests more often, many of them are inexperienced and unaware of how to prevent fires. More of the fires have also been started by target shooting and fireworks than in years past, he said.

It’s also changed how crews fight fire. The strategy coming into the year was to attack quickly and suppress fires before they spread. That avoids a situation in which large firefighting crews get packed into areas where the virus might be able to spread.

It’s also been expensive. We’ve already spent $28 million more than we anticipated.

But at a time when we should be looking for a unified response, our fire-prone forests are being turned into yet another political flashpoint.

At a briefing on wildfires earlier this week in California, the state’s Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot said there is agreement that forest management is needed, but urged the president to “recognize the changing climate and what it means for our forest.”

“If we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed together protecting Californians,” Crowfoot said.

“It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch,” Trump responded.

“I wish science agreed with you,” Crowfoot said.

“Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” the president said.

In Trump’s eyes, the blame for forest fires lies with inadequate logging leaving what he bizarrely referred to as “explosive trees.”

Sen. Mike Lee, naturally, falls into that camp. At a Senate hearing Wednesday he, too, blamed forest mismanagement for wildfires.

“Cycles of burning and regrowth are completely natural. They aren’t a new feature of current climate conditions as some would have us believe,” Lee said. In his view, it is government regulations and environmental litigation that is to blame.

He later tweeted that the “California wildfires [are] caused by bad management, not climate change.”

We hear the same thing every time the forests burn. And even if we accept that more could be done to manage the forests, it ignores a critical piece of the puzzle.

“There is no denying that the fire season has prolonged and is almost year-round in some parts of the West,” Simon Wang, a professor of climate dynamics at Utah State University, told me Wednesday. “Climate change is making this so-called fire weather occur more frequently, to last long, and each week it prolongs it stretches the forest [making it] easier to burn.”

A 2016 study reported that human-caused climate change has resulted in higher temperatures, less rainfall and a longer fire season which, as a result made the forests drier, “and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984."

The average temperature across the West has climbed 2 degrees since the 1970s, and the fire season is now six weeks longer than it was a few decades ago, something that Cottam and his crews are witnessing during this grueling year.

“We’ve had an ignition every day since April 18, and that will probably continue to November,” he said. “We will have six to seven months of continuous fire response, and that’s just crazy. It wears people out.”

As much as he can, Utah’s forester tries to focus his effort on controlling the things he can control — helping communities butting up against the forest lands brace for fire and create emergency plans; training locals partnering to fight fires when they happen; and fostering a “resilient landscape,” those forest management projects that include eliminating dead or overgrown areas, although he adds that we can never “cut our way out” of the problem.

All of this makes sense and these important efforts on the front end can pay big dividends on the back end.

But it only addresses part of the problem. If we continue to do nothing about the changing climate, or worse, continue to exacerbate the problem, we’ll be fighting a losing battle. This should not — and cannot, really — be a partisan issue. We know those fights end in a stalemate.

We need a holistic approach and we need real leadership. We need a president — and senators — whose response to the overwhelming evidence that our planet is warming is far more substantive than a simple, “Well, I don’t think science knows, actually.”

As Wang explained, if he had a chance to deliver a message to our government officials, “I’d ask them: Do you want to see Utah’s mountains burn like Oregon’s with those fire losses? If not, do something. Because it’s going to happen.”