The American West is Burning
By Katie Vloet
With wildfires rising in intensity and frequency, scholars across the country are racing to save the West’s natural landscapes and the at-risk communities that call them home. Here, Leaders & Best highlights the Wyss Scholars and the alumni of U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability. We explore how U-M could help preserve some of our nation’s most cherished landscapes.
Sarah Clawson (MS ’10) was hosting a Sunday afternoon party at her house in Arizona on June 24, 2017, initially unaware that a potential nightmare had just ignited. As guests started to arrive, she received an alert that a fire was nearby. More alerts came through her hand-held radio, and, though the topography and vegetation at her home prevented her from seeing it, she sensed this could be a major wildfire.
Clawson (nee Tomsky) is district ranger for two of the three districts in the Prescott National Forest. This 1.25 million-acre forest north of Phoenix comprises deserts and mountains, horseback and ATV trails, juniper and chaparral. It is the home to hundreds of miles of trails for bicyclists, hikers, ATV riders, and other adventurers. It is a home for humans, as well as roadrunners, coyotes, and mountain lions.
Clawson continued to receive alerts on her radio and soon handed off hosting the party to a friend. Socializing would have to wait for another day; her forest was on fire.
Like so many wildfires in the western U.S., the Goodwin Fire started as a whisper, then grew to a violent scream. Neighborhoods, then communities, then towns were evacuated. Clawson continued her work of holding in-person and phone meetings, helping to coordinate the response of firefighters and other emergency responders. For several weeks, she slept little and fueled herself with coffee and Uncrustables sandwiches.
On the day the fire began, 150 acres were affected. By the next day, the Goodwin Fire had ravaged 1,000 acres of mostly dense chaparral and stands of Ponderosa pine. Four days in, the Arizona governor declared a state of emergency as wind gusts up to 30 miles per hour and dry forest land continued to feed the fire. It swept across a four-lane highway. Clawson feared for human lives, as well as grazing cattle and the habitat of a rare spotted owl.
Exhausted but energized by the coordinated effort she witnessed in the incident command center, Clawson pushed forth from one sleepless day to the next. “I looked around at a room of our partners at one point and felt a sense of confidence that all of us would do the best we could because we understood each other, had trained together, and, though we may lose homes, we may lose beautiful parts of our forest, whatever happens—it’s not because we weren’t prepared. We were such a strong group of partners, and I felt a sense of relief that we were going to get through the fire together.”
In the front-line effort that Clawson helped coordinate, firefighters created dozer lines to slow the spread of the fire. DC-10 air tankers dropped 11,000 gallons of fire retardant at a time, while helicopters doused flames with water.
In the end, the fire that began in a 150-acre area on June 24 swept over nearly 30,000 acres. Evacuees returned home by mid-July, and Clawson’s day-to-day work returned to a broader slate of forest issues. That work includes overseeing the prescribed burns that are conducted in the Prescott National Forest to decrease the likelihood of catastrophic fires, and studying the ongoing impact of wildfires on the forest ecosystem. “Fire,” she says, “is never far from the top of my mind.”
The Impact of Climate Change
Fire is never far from top-of-mind for many people in the American West. A combination of climate change—in particular the drying out of forest land due to global warming—along with numerous other factors has led to a more than fivefold increase in California’s annual burned areas between 1972 and 2018, according to a study in the journal Earth’s Future. A National Climate Assessment report stated that half as much forest area would have burned between 1984 and 2015 in a world not warmed by climate change. Summertime forest fires have increased by about 800% in size over the past five decades.
As a result, the ecologies of entire forests have changed. Homes have melted. People and animals have died as wildfires—often behaving like living, sentient monsters—rage closer to front doorways and back decks. Fires so massive they can be seen from satellites in space are forever changing accustomed ways of life.
And while the West has been the most significant of the wildfire hotbeds, other parts of the world and of the country—notably the Southeast—are also expected to see a dramatic increase in the threat of fires in the coming years.
All of this is occurring in a hypercharged political climate that has had an impact on the willingness of elected officials to address the roots of the threat.
“Part of the problem right now is that the people who don’t want to do anything about climate change have been successful in turning it into a political issue,” says Jonathan Overpeck. Overpeck is the Samuel A. Graham Dean of U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) and the William B. Stapp Collegiate Professor of Environmental Education. “I’m a Westerner. I think most people in the West understand the problem really well. It’s the politicians and the special interests who are trying to cloud the issue.”
The politics of climate change might be tenuous, but the science is solid. “We are sure that it’s getting warmer and that it’s getting drier,” Overpeck says. “We are sure that those factors are contributing to the wildfires in the West.”
Like Clawson and Overpeck, many alumni, faculty, and students of SEAS are working to draw a figurative and sometimes literal line in the forest floor in order to bring back ecosystems, limit the impact of catastrophic fires, and slow the rapid increase in their incidence.
Among them are Wyss Scholars for the Conservation of the American West, SEAS students whose work is funded by the Wyss Foundation. “We’ve had 13 years’ worth of Wyss Scholars who have been recognized for their leadership potential. The Wyss Foundation recognizes that in order to protect Western landscapes in the long run, you have to have a cadre of leaders,” says Steven Yaffee (BS ’72, MS ’73). Yaffee is a professor of natural resource and environmental policy and the faculty coordinator of the program. “Our alumni are having a significant impact in the West, and the Wyss Scholars are moving into leadership positions in agencies, nonprofit organizations, and community groups.”
Heath Nero (MS ’09), a Wyss Scholar, says the program formed a sturdy foundation for his career. “Because of SNRE [as SEAS was previously known] and the Wyss Scholars Program, I was well prepared for my first job upon graduation, as a program manager at the Wyss Foundation working with our partners to try to protect seven discrete landscapes in the American West,” Nero says. The program “also provided me with the financial resources to complete my Environmental Policy master’s program on time and without the worry of student loans bogging me down in the future.”
The training he received in campaigning has served him well on protection campaigns in the United States, Canada, Argentina, and elsewhere, Nero says. It has also assisted him in his current work: helping to navigate the international negotiations around the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Wyss Foundation continues to be part of Nero’s life: He currently heads the foundation’s conservation program.
Fighting Fire with Fire
Smokey Bear, the long-running awareness and advertising icon of the U.S. Forest Service, was unequivocal: He told us in print and on air, “Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires!” That slogan ran from 1947 until about 50 years later. Smokey became so popular that a doll version of him was made, the Beach Boys sang about his famous slogan, and his likeness adorned stamps and posters.
Yet Smokey’s seemingly benign message is no small part of why wildfires are so problematic today. “The whole notion of Smokey Bear and putting out any fire as quickly as possible, decades and decades of that being the strategy, has led to overstocked forests,” Clawson says.
What many people don’t understand, she says, is that fires are vital to the health of forests. Fires clear dead wood, provide nutrition for soil, and set off an ecological succession through which new trees grow and a mature forest develops again.
Without regular fires, “you have much more hazardous conditions and a heavier fuel load,” Clawson says. “Now, you have this real tension between the risk, and the importance of fires to the ecosystem.”
Mary Mitsos (MS ’95, MA ’95), president and CEO of the National Forest Foundation (NFF), points out that the Forest Service “does an amazing job of suppressing most fires. In the past, they’ve done too good a job.” Trees such as the lodgepole pine, which is common out West, have a shorter lifespan than most trees, Mitsos explains. “Their cones won’t open to produce new lodgepole pine without fire.” Ponderosa and longleaf pines are species that have evolved with fire, and “they rely on small fires coming through and cleaning up the forest,” she says.
One partial solution is more prescribed fires. “You have to treat the forests to be less fire-prone,” Overpeck says. “With prescribed burns, you light low-intensity fires. You want the understory to burn and just char the trees but not kill them. That way, there’s no fuel for the canopy. Without smaller, natural fires, forests have been able to build up an unnatural amount of fuel.”
Prescribed burns are not a perfect or complete solution, however. “The problem is that they can get out of control. People are very risk-averse to having prescribed burns,” Overpeck says. And even a prescribed burn can trigger breathing problems for people with asthma and other respiratory issues.
In the Prescott National Forest, Clawson says, much of the surrounding population understands the need for prescribed fires. “Sometimes we need to conduct one right next to their property line, so we have to have their buy-in,” she says.
She also needs the citizens’ support in making their properties more fire-resistant and being prepared to evacuate when a fire’s extreme behavior overwhelms even the most well-prepared homes. “You can understand how that messaging can be hard with the public,” Clawson says. “We’re very lucky in the Prescott community and surrounding communities that we have a longstanding relationship with them through education. They are well-versed about what needs to be done.”
Another remedy is thinning, the selective removal of trees and unwanted fuel material from forests. When more space is created between trees, fire cannot spread as easily from tree to tree. Overpeck has thinned the forest around his cabin in Colorado to create a perimeter that is more fire-resistant. On a large scale, though, thinning is very expensive.
“That’s why our students and faculty are looking into the alternatives,” Overpeck says. “Some of our students and faculty have been looking at the services that forests provide: Water supply. Places to hunt and fish. A place for biodiversity. Specialized timber and other forest products. We are studying all of those services that, in theory, could generate money that could then pay for the thinning.
“That’s what SEAS is all about: scholarly work with a real-world impact,” Overpeck says.
That educational focus helped prepare Mitsos for her current work and a more thorough understanding that “natural resources problems are complex and interdependent.
“The classroom education and also from the student body really helped prepare me for the diversity that exists in our natural world and how you can’t take one component like climate change and say, ‘that’s the issue,’” Mitsos says. “It’s much more complex than that.”
Her education and experience have also helped her maintain a sense of optimism about the future of forests. Her organization is not involved in fire suppression, but more in the realm of forest health. “We do a lot of reforestation after fires have taken out the natural seed source,” Mitsos says.
In 2018, NFF launched a campaign in which every dollar donated to the nonprofit would allow for one tree to be planted in a national forest. Within months, it had planted a staggering 2.6 million trees.
In California in 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown stated a goal of supporting federal efforts to double the rate of “health and resiliency treatments” in the state from 250,000 acres per year to 500,000 acres by 2020, says Jay Chamberlin (MS ’98), chief of the Natural Resources Division for California State Parks. Much of the increase will be accomplished through an acceleration of forest thinning and the use of prescribed fire.
“I have to say that this was astonishing to me,” Chamberlin says, “because we’ve been practitioners at state parks of prescribed fire for decades. I never expected to see the embrace of prescribed fire at this level.”
So why now?
“People are looking for answers, and prescribed fire is one of the few ways to ‘reboot’ many forest systems to restore a natural, less intense fire regime in the future.” With the new policy emphasis—and funding—Chamberlin says his agency is “scrambling to make use of those new opportunities.”
Emily Blackmer, a 2020 M.S. candidate at SEAS, is one of the current cohort of Wyss Scholars. Blackmer is researching the factors that enable rural communities to develop a “stewardship economy”—forest restoration activities that also support local jobs. “We often hear the false narrative of a choice between environment or economy, but in a lot of these small Western towns, the environment is the economy—or at least an important part of it,” Blackmer says. “So an investment in the environment is an investment in the local economy, which is also an investment in the community.”
The team’s research centers around a series of case studies of communities that have been leading the way in building stewardship economies. “We are trying to identify what has enabled and constrained these efforts, and what policies, investments, and programs are needed to continue developing stewardship economies.”
Such remedies are a vital part of the overall solution to catastrophic wildfires, Overpeck says. “We have to learn to adapt, and we have to fight hard to stop the drivers of climate change, particularly the burning of fossil fuel,” he says. “We have to adapt and make our communities more resilient in the face of wildfire.”
In Prescott, Clawson says the concerted efforts to improve the health of the forest will have positive results. “Ultimately the goal is that, if we’re able to trend our ecosystems toward a healthier place, they’ll be more resilient and resistant to climate change.“And when lightning strikes, fire will have much more likelihood to play the natural role that it played for centuries. It will be recurring in that natural regime and no longer be a threat. I personally feel very optimistic that, on the Prescott National Forest, we are setting ourselves up for success. That we will be able to make the ecosystems healthier and more resilient, and wildfire won’t always have that same potential risk to the forest and the communities.”
At the Wyss Foundation, Nero says, the organization has ramped up its ongoing efforts to stem the biodiversity crisis.“As somebody who lives in the West and suffered through the impacts of a massive 54,000-acre fire just 8 miles from my house during the summer of 2018, we are already seeing the impacts of climate change in the American West,” Nero says. “The most pressing solution to these fires is to deal with climate change as quickly as possible, and the work of the Wyss Foundation to safeguard large, intact, and wild land and seascapes around the world will not only help with this, but will also help us stem the reverse side of the same coin: the biodiversity crisis.”
Yaffee points out that we need to foster collaborative approaches to managing forests to prevent large fires—in essence becoming just as good at managing landscapes and communities as we are at fighting fires. “We have really good, coordinated responses to putting out fires,” he says. “You need the same level of coordinated action proactively. So there’s much more community-level engagement in making the landscape safer and more ecologically healthy.”
SEAS faculty, alumni, and students also want to remind the public of what they are fighting for. Being in a national forest in the West, Overpeck says, “it’s sort of the feeling you get when you’re on Lake Michigan. Wide-open spaces. Natural, unpolluted spaces. Research in the School for Environment and Sustainability has shown how that is good for your human biochemistry. It makes you feel good to be in that environment, to connect with nature.”
Mitsos has been to about 90% of all national forests. “We are such a fortunate country to have the public land system that we have. Out of all the different agencies and missions, the national forest system is, I think, the centerpiece of our public lands. They are ubiquitous, and for the most part free. They are the backbone of the economy for communities. I have 193 million acres that I can visit,” she says. “We have to make sure our forests stay forests.”