Climate Change Has Made Fire Mitigation Even More Crucial for At-Risk Forests : Consider This from NPR After a prescribed burn became the largest wildfire in New Mexico history earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service put a ninety day ban on controlled burns.

But while these kinds of burns do carry risk, very few escape, and they are a crucial tool in reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Forest ecologists are worried the ban added to the wildfire risk in areas that desperately need maintenance.

An investigation by CapRadio and the California Newsroom found that proper fire mitigation could have protected the Northern California town of Grizzly Flats from the Caldor Fire last year. CapRadio's Scott Rodd reports on how the U.S. Forest Service failed to execute its own mitigation plan in time, despite recognizing the danger decades ago.

KCRW's Caleigh Wells looked into all of the obstacles that stand in the way of prescribed burns and fire preparation in California's Big Bear Valley, which could be the next disaster.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Prescribed Burns Started a Wildfire, But Experts Say They're A Crucial Tool

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

At the end of summer, heavy monsoons roll across New Mexico. They usually bring welcome relief to the dry landscapes, especially after the intensifying wildfires and droughts of recent years. But for communities in northern New Mexico, the rains have brought disaster after an already harrowing year.

LOUIE TRUJILLO: Everything from pine needles to logs and boulders and trees coming down from the burn scars into the river, so the river has been rendered unusable.

CHANG: That is Louie Trujillo, the mayor of Las Vegas, N.M. The town has battled a water crisis after the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burned a large portion of their watershed. The heavy rains then washed charred debris into the river and reservoir. It's yet another obstacle on the path to recovery for communities impacted by what became the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. Todd Abel is a federal operations chief for Southwestern fires.

TODD ABEL: That fire had a lot of energy, and it throws spots out in front of it and moves extremely fast. There's no way to get people in front of it to do anything with it. We couldn't even get aircraft to drop retardant in front of it.

CHANG: The fire began from a prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service near Hermit's Peak on April 6. These kinds of burns are used to clear out brush and leaves from at-risk areas so that they don't build up and become instant fuel for extreme fires. But this one jumped its burn area. Winds picked up, and the blaze took off. It merged with the nearby Calf Canyon Fire, which was started by a dormant burn pile from a previous prescribed burn. The blaze took almost five months to contain and burned nearly 350,000 acres, destroying hundreds of homes, including a centuries-old house that Bernice Naranjo and her husband Tito had been renovating since 1971.

BERNICE NARANJO: From nothing building, that one little tiny room that was not even a room became a beautiful home.

CHANG: Naranjo is one of many residents who say a planned burn during a windy, dry spring was just a bad idea. And she blames the U.S. Forest Service.

NARANJO: I actually wanted to send and - get a bucket of ashes from our house and send it to the Forest Service because they are accountable.

CHANG: Shortly after that fire, the head of the U.S. Forest Service, Randy Moore, put a 90-day ban on prescribed burns. And that concerned many forest ecologists because prescribed burns are seen by experts as a crucial tool for reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires in areas that aren't too dry to burn. Prescribed fires that jump the burn zone, like what happened with the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, are incredibly rare. Fewer than 1% escape.

Fire advisor Barbara Satink Wolfson was one of dozens to sign a letter to Chief Moore urging him not to make the prescribed burn pause nationwide.

BARBARA SATINK WOLFSON: There's basically a small window in which they can conduct the prescribed burn. And we definitely missed opportunities.

CHANG: The Forest Service also released an internal review of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, and essentially, it said, that they failed to take climate change into account when conducting an intentional burn during a historic drought. Matthew Hurteau, a biologist at the University of New Mexico, says that is a systemic problem.

MATTHEW HURTEAU: A lot of the planning tools that fire managers rely upon for planning prescribed burns were built under a climate that no longer exists.

CHANG: Last year, the U.S. government spent a record $4.3 billion on fire suppression - something that has actually worsened wildfire conditions. Meanwhile, from 2009 to 2018, just over $500 million were spent per year on treatments to reduce wildfire fuel like prescribed burns. Experts like fire ecologist Timothy Ingalsbee argue the agency should rethink its priorities.

TIMOTHY INGALSBEE: If we were to shift those resources and that funding into prescribed burning, that would be a big help.

CHANG: Now, with hundreds of millions of dollars from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last fall going to fire mitigation projects, help might finally be on the way. The Department of the Interior is pledging to finish hazardous fuel reduction projects like tree thinning and controlled burning on 2 million acres of forest land. But there is much more to be done, and the window in which it can be done safely is shrinking. Fernando Rosario-Ortiz is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

FERNANDO ROSARIO-ORTIZ: The fire season - you keep hearing that it used to be so many months over the summer. Now, we're getting to be year-round.

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CHANG: CONSIDER THIS - the Forest Service says at least 234 million acres of forest are at a high risk of dangerous wildfire. But in the last decade, controlled burns have treated less than 1% of that total. As wildfires intensify with the growing climate crisis, that work becomes even more critical. After the break, we'll look at two California communities - one that could have been saved with proper mitigation efforts and another that could be the next disaster if crucial work is not completed.

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CHANG: From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Wednesday, October 5.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. New Mexico is not the only state to have seen historic fires in the past two years. The Marshall Fire that broke out near Boulder on December 30 last year was Colorado's most destructive on record in terms of property loss. Last July, California saw its second-worst fire when the Dixie Fire burned nearly 1 million acres. It became the first fire to spread from one side of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the other. The second fire to do that followed just one month later.

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CHANG: The Caldor Fire destroyed over a thousand structures and burned through the town of Grizzly Flats in Northern California. It destroyed about two-thirds of the community there. California Fire assistant fire chief Erich Schwab said there was no way to control that blaze.

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ERICH SCHWAB: We don't have any tools out there to stop the fire, so we result to herding the fire away from structures and away from people, and that's what we're actively doing.

CHANG: Steve Bardem, a firefighter, echoed the challenge the Caldor Fire proved for crews.

STEVE BARDEM: It was pretty, pretty high there - 13, 14-foot flame lengths. And then you get the ember cast off it, and it gets grass. And the pine needles get going, and it goes over to the houses.

CHANG: An investigation from CapRadio and the California newsroom found that the U.S. Forest Service could have done more to protect Grizzly Flats. Here's what CapRadio reporter Scott Rodd learned.

SCOTT RODD, BYLINE: Mark Almer's house stands out amid the devastation. It's robin's-egg blue and looks untouched, as if the Caldor Fire's flames just skirted past.

MARK ALMER: It's kind of lonely around here now. It feels kind of strange.

RODD: The 60-year-old former fire inspector is standing in his garage gazing at the hollowed-out neighborhood. He says his home survived because he spent years fireproofing it. He swapped out flammable siding for concrete and replaced his wood deck with fire-resistant material.

ALMER: I think ultimately, that's what saved us.

RODD: Embers scorched the deck, but it never ignited. Almer says the threat of wildfire became clear after a warning from the Forest Service nearly two decades ago. The agency gathered residents at the community church and presented fire modeling that predicted a blaze similar to the Caldor Fire.

ALMER: They showed a fire that could potentially wipe out our community within 24 hours.

RODD: Almer helped create a volunteer group called the Grizzly Flats Fire Safe Council to protect the town. They began clearing excess vegetation from around homes and removing brush near evacuation roads. But as the volunteers hustled, the Forest Service idled.

KATHY MELVIN: The history of the Forest Service in the time that we lived there was that everything took forever.

CHANG: Kathy Melvin is a former Fire Safe Council member. She lost her home in the Caldor Fire and shared a property line with the Forest Service. After the meeting in the community church, the Forest Service tackled some smaller fire prevention projects, but it took 10 years to announce a comprehensive plan to protect Grizzly Flats. It was called the Trestle Project, and it promised to reduce overgrown brush and set prescribed fires on 15,000 acres of federal land around the town. That would create a protective buffer. But, as Melvin recalls...

MELVIN: It would take years and years and years for anything to get done.

RODD: The Forest Service originally said it would finish the Trestle Project by 2020. However, that timeline fell apart. Our investigation found the agency finished only 14% of the planned work before the Caldor Fire, which burned through the unfinished project and then devastated Grizzly Flats. Forest Service officials cite a number of reasons for the stalled effort - staffing shortages, pushback from environmental groups, too many days when prescribed burns would be dangerous due to hotter, drier conditions caused by climate change and maybe the biggest hurdle of all...

RANDY MOORE: We did not have the funding to do the level of work that needed to be done out there.

RODD: Chief Randy Moore leads the U.S. Forest Service. He's optimistic that billions of dollars recently allocated by Congress will jump-start other planned projects around the country.

MOORE: There are a number of communities that are at risk.

RODD: Does the Forest Service bear any responsibility for the outcome in Grizzly Flats?

MOORE: Well, I mean, I don't know what kind of question that is. I mean, you know, do anybody bear any responsibility for not having a budget to do the work that we need to do?

MICHAEL WARA: It's sad to think about what could have been.

RODD: Michael Wara is a climate policy expert from Stanford University.

WARA: If all this work was done by 2020, Grizzly Flats might still be there.

RODD: That's also the opinion of former district ranger Duane Nelson. He was one of the Trussell Project's key architects.

DUANE NELSON: I think there would have been a very high probability that Grizzly Flat would not have burned in the Caldor Fire.

RODD: He says finishing the ambitious fire mitigation plan could have meant survival for the 400-plus homes destroyed here last year.

CHANG: CapRadio's Scott Rodd in Grizzly Flats.

In the Southwest, wildfire preparedness projects are underway. Federal land managers have already begun to survey forests in need of maintenance. Millions from the infrastructure package will help fund that work. But money is only one of many obstacles for fire mitigation strategies like prescribed burns. And the clock is ticking. If the U.S. Forest Service fails to complete this critical work to prevent fires, things could get worse. In the ski resort town of Big Bear about 100 miles east of LA, Caleigh Wells from member station KCRW reports on the challenges ahead to protect that community.

CALEIGH WELLS, BYLINE: On the day I met up with Forest Service burn boss Christina Barba, she was supposed to be setting a prescribed fire to help clear out flammable brush in the San Bernardino National Forest. But she had to call it off. The weather made it too risky.

CHRISTINA BARBA: And therein lies the paradox of being a burn boss.

WELLS: Her job of setting safe, controllable fires is often too risky now because they could spread into major problems.

BARBA: It's like you want to burn enough that it is meaningful and you're improving large parts of the landscape. But then are we ever going to have the resources to do it?

WELLS: Barba says she should be burning 3,000 acres a year to protect Big Bear. This year, she burned just 20 acres. She says there's a saying in her line of work.

BARBA: You could always find a reason not to burn.

WELLS: There's a long list of fire mitigation projects that have been proposed and then canceled. The list of obstacles is even longer. Let's start with the biggest one - climate change.

BARBA: Yeah, it's going to get hotter, but it also gets drier.

WELLS: And the window of opportunity for controlled burns shrinks. Barba had only 13 safe burn days last year. But most of those days, she still couldn't set a fire, which brings us to problem number two - air quality. Big Bear shares an air basin with Los Angeles and the suburbs east known as the Inland Empire.

BARBA: Because the Inland Empire has ozone, or some days they have more particulates than they should, it shuts down burning in the entire basin.

WELLS: Barba lost five of her 13 burn days because of air pollution in the larger region. Then comes problem number three - resources. Some days she doesn't have the people or equipment to burn safely.

BARBA: There's been times where I've had my organization, and then I get a call from the fire management official like, three of your engines got sent on a strike team for a fire. And then that is the end of that.

WELLS: And even on a perfect day, when the weather is right and the air is clear and the firefighters have nothing better to do, prescribed fires still burn up money. The San Bernardino National Forest would not disclose its budget after months of multiple asks and a Freedom of Information Act request. But Barba gives a hint.

BARBA: I think my house is worth more than the fuels budget this year.

WELLS: All those obstacles made for a close call earlier this month when the Radford Fire forced some residents to flee their homes. Patrice Duncan spoke to me as she drove down the burning mountain.

PATRICE DUNCAN: I've seen too many just horror stories of people being stuck, trying to evacuate, waiting too long to evacuate. And I just didn't want to make the news that way.

WELLS: Luckily, there were enough firefighters and equipment to prevent any damage to town, and the remnants of Hurricane Kay brought helpful rain. But that luck might run out.

DUNCAN: I can make sure my home is safe. But if the forest is coming at me because it wasn't, you know, managed well, there's not a whole lot I'm going to be able to do about it.

WELLS: There are still thousands of acres in Big Bear Valley ripe for the next wildfire, and a lot of the community still isn't ready.

CHANG: That's KCRW's Caleigh Wells reporting from Big Bear. NPR's Eric Westervelt and KUNM's Alice Fordham contributed reporting at the top of this episode.

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CHANG: From NPR, it's CONSIDER THIS. I'm Ailsa Chang.

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