Planning for the Future Era of Unprecedented Wildfire Activity
COMMENTARY

May 10, 2024by Lucas Mayfield, President, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters
Planning for the Future Era of Unprecedented Wildfire Activity
FILE - Carson Hot Shots Henry Hornberger, left, and Tyler Freeman cut up a hollow tree that was burning on the inside, Monday, May 23, 2022, as they and their co-workers work on hot spots from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire in the Carson National Forest west of Chacon, N.M. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

Wildland firefighters are a rare breed. While most of society runs away from wildfires, we run, rappel and parachute into the blaze. But the firefight isn’t our only challenge. We also rely on overtime and hazard pay to make a living wage. We have continued pay uncertainty and ongoing staffing shortages. We are denied workers’ compensation due to bureaucratic hurdles and have little access to the mental health support required for the job.

While many of our battles consist of proving our worth to politicians with the purse and bureaucrats with the pen, we will never lose focus on our purpose and calling: protecting our communities and landscapes from unwanted wildfire.

Increasingly variable weather patterns will certainly continue to inform how firefighting agencies and landowners approach future fire seasons. Heavy winter precipitation compounds record-setting hazardous fuel loads in forest stands already overstocked with dense vegetation — a situation that, if not responsibly and promptly managed, renders many of our natural landscapes and nearby communities highly vulnerable to wildfire.

First, let’s be clear that not all wildfires are “bad.” Many lower intensity fires are beneficial, and some are even ecologically necessary. But the unwanted fires, the fires that burn at high intensities and negatively impact communities, infrastructure and critical watersheds are increasing and becoming more difficult to suppress. Wildfires can destroy entire sections of economically critical commercial timber. Fires can also significantly affect freshwater access for communities, keystone wildlife habitats and more.

Recovery from a truly catastrophic fire can take decades. However, there are effective preventive measures for reducing this level of devastation.

Fuel reduction projects like prescribed burns and forest thinning are both effective measures to reduce the overall severity of a wildfire, and the cost of these preventive measures is negligible when compared to the cost of suppressing and recovering from a wildfire.

When all these tools work together in concert, they can make a major difference in the intensity and duration of a wildfire. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure. One important and often underutilized component of this proactive wildfire management portfolio is the implementation of strategically placed and well-maintained fuel breaks.

Fuel breaks are strips of land where strategically reduced vegetation disrupts the continuity of hazardous fuel with the intention of dramatically slowing down the spread of a wildfire. These fuel breaks can look like anything from open strips to an area with larger, well-spaced trees (referred to as a shaded fuel break).

When it is safe for firefighters to engage, these fuel breaks can significantly increase the effectiveness of both aerial and land-based fire suppression strategies. In this dangerous profession, proactive investments that increase the safety and effectiveness of the people that say yes to serving the public in this way become unquantifiable in value.

In wildland-urban interface areas, fuel breaks provide a much better chance for communities and critical infrastructure to withstand fires started in nearby wildland areas. Conversely, they can also limit the consequence borne by critical natural resources from fires ignited within populated areas.

Fuel breaks have proven effective at aiding firefighters in saving numerous homes in both the Angora and Caldor wildfires that threatened South Lake Tahoe in 2007 and 2021, respectively.

As land management agencies, landowners and private sector partners plan for the future in an era of unprecedented wildfire activity, it is imperative they find ways to expedite hazardous fuel-reduction projects like fuel breaks in high-risk areas.

To do so, state and federal agencies must utilize all existing legal authorities to implement these projects in a timely manner, and policymakers must fund them accordingly over the long term.

Wildland firefighters know all too well the price of destructive wildfires. We know the price communities, landowners and taxpayers pay to recover and rebuild homes, neighborhoods, infrastructure, ecosystems and landscapes. We know the price we pay physically, mentally and emotionally in the firefight. We know the price we will pay environmentally for generations to come.

The cost of responsible and proactive landscape management is a drop in the bucket when compared to catastrophe, and it is a cost worth paying if it means we can avoid even one funeral because of a wildfire.


Lucas Mayfield is the president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, which was formed in 2019 by active and retired federal wildland firefighters to address issues such as pay and classification, comprehensive health and well-being, and workers’ compensation claims. Mayfield previously served as a supervisory forestry technician and assistant hotshot superintendent. He can be reached on X.

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