Deeply Talks: Fire & Drought – the Extremes Become Routine

The West has entered an era of permanent water scarcity and is facing more frequent, larger wildfires. Listen to two experts explain how these challenges – and our approaches to managing them – are intertwined.

Written by Lindsay Abrams Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
An air tanker drops retardant on the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, on August 5, 2018.Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images

In this month’s episode of Deeply Talks, Water Deeply managing editor Matt Weiser discussed the American West’s dual challenges of water scarcity and wildfires with Crystal Kolden, associate professor of forest, rangeland and fire sciences in the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho, and Van Butsic, assistant cooperative extension specialist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Wildfire affects the watersheds that in turn supply municipal drinking water, fulfill agricultural needs and support critical species across the West. That’s why the management of both forest and water resources is so closely intertwined – and why this issue has become more pressing. The West, Kolden explained, is seeing more fires across larger areas, and even changes to how these fires burn.

“Most of the water utilities in California now have extensive programs that address fire prevention and suppression and also forest management to alter the behavior of fires in their watersheds,” Kolden said. Outside of California, however, the level of preparedness varies, depending on how often the municipalities have seen the effect of wildfire on their watersheds firsthand.

But more and more areas that haven’t had to deal with wildfires are recognizing that with climate change, they will start to. “They’re very much understanding that this is something they’ll have to tackle if they aren’t already,” she said.

Prescribed burns and forest thinning are recognized as ways to control wildfires, said Butsic, but it’s something that’s easier said than done, particularly because of regulations that restrict forest management. While many of these rules have benefits – for example, preventing exposure to smoke inhalation and protecting endangered species – he maintains that they are still shortsighted. In a recent study, his team proposed some changes to help take these long-term costs into account.

“Forest management is really about trade-offs,” Butsic said. “You’re either going to do the work now and get the benefits later, or you’re going to put off doing the work now and then you’re going to get the pain later.”

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