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Serving: West

Plane crashes, wildfires have something in common

TAGS: Management
Eagle Creek fire in Oregon DaveAlan/Getty Images
DIGGING INTO THE CAUSE: There’s a lot of blame going around, but given all the factors involved, there’s probably some blame to share in the Western fire disasters of 2020.
Another Voice: The cascade effect comes into play for a lot of disasters, which makes creating solutions challenging.

The smoky sunrises and sunsets seen out East were silent reminders to many that the West is on fire. It’s a disaster when hundreds of thousands of acres burn endlessly, and it’s been building for some time.

But before we go pointing fingers, let’s consider the situation. A massive wildfire doesn’t just start. A lot of factors have to line up and then fall one by one; and digging in, it’s possible to find a solution for the future. And perhaps move past the blame game to the action game.

In thinking about this, the “start” of many of the fires this year was dry lightning, caused by droughty air so dry that rainfall didn’t reach the ground — but the lightning did. And the fires started, but many Western ranchers and farmers know that the cause of the intensity of the fires started a lot longer ago than this year.

This is in some ways related to a phenomenon called the cascade effect. This is when a series of factors fall into place to create a disaster. While it’s often possible to place blame in a disaster, if you look at all the factors, you find that a lot had to happen before trouble set in.

For example, an airplane crash does not often have a single cause. Sure, pilots get blamed for crashes, but first something else had to happen, followed by something else. For example, the 737 Max crashes are awful, but the problem started back with the original design of the new aircraft and the software fix chosen to compensate. Combine that with pilots who may not have been adequately trained, with little time to act and the result was the crashes. Boeing is the initial cause, not the pilots, in this case.

But U.S. pilots had been flying the Max for months with no crashes, which in itself shows that certain factors have to line up for the disaster. It's up to Boeing, and the Federal Aviation Administration, to now solve that problem.

Wildfires and the cascade effect

We know that federal forest management has been impacted by outside groups that have worked long and hard to lobby away a range of factors, from controlled burns to fire road maintenance. Add in restrictions in grazing forestlands, and the first part of the disaster has begun.

The tinder in forestlands has been building up. Even old-growth forest can be sustainably logged to keep the fuel load down. When fires did happen, those fire roads and planned firebreaks contained trouble.

Next. you have people moving closer to the woods, to have that “in-nature” lifestyle. That pushes up the financial risk of uncontrolled fires in new ways. When it was just wood burning in the past, these fires didn’t get the attention they do now, with homes burning as well.

Finally, drought plays into this. Multiyear droughts caused by an increasingly extreme climate has dried out that fuel. It was just waiting for some dry lightning — or a gender reveal party.

How to solve?

We need to look at all the causes of wildfires this year and take studied action to aim toward a solution. That includes rebuilding fire roads to improve access for control. It includes smart, controlled burning to reduce the lower-level fuel load, so fires can't climb trees and jump rivers. We need to open these areas for grazing, which not only reduces fuel load but also adds needed fertility to the forest floor for green plants. And sustainable logging should be an option, too.

A multifaceted approach is needed. The question is, can we have that conversation?

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