A barrage of lightning strikes and erratic winds sparked fires across California and the West last weekend, forcing evacuations from several towns and threatening thousands of homes. Fire crews battled to head off the blazes yesterday, with temperatures in the high 80s offering little relief.

Late summer is normally prime fire season in the American West, and record heat and dryness have left the region particularly vulnerable this year. Anticipating these conditions, the Forest Service has temporarily suspended a long-standing policy of allowing small fires to burn out, according to a memo from the agency's deputy chief of forestry.

While the memo acknowledges the necessity of employing fire as a tool of restoration, noting that suppression of all fires "is not a desirable approach in the long-run," it cites the need to protect life and personal property -- as well as budgetary concerns -- in its decision.

The Forest Service is likely to have its hands full this season. A large fire is currently threatening three towns in northern Colorado, while other fires continue to burn in California, Idaho and elsewhere.

The Ponderosa fire in northern Colorado has prompted the evacuation of several thousand rural residents, and it is threatening more than 3,000 structures in the towns of Viola, Shingletown and Manton.

The California fire, which is burning through rugged, densely forested terrain spanning the counties of Shasta and Tehama, 170 miles north of Sacramento, was sparked by last week's lightning storm. About 1,200 firefighters have been deployed to rein in the blaze, which was 5 percent contained yesterday.

In Idaho, a major fire is burning through Boise National Forest, near the town of Featherville. The Trinity Ridge fire had scorched 88,500 acres as of yesterday.

More fires continue to burn across the West, from Washington to New Mexico. The National Interagency Fire Center has set the national fire preparedness level at 4, indicating that more than 60 percent of available fire crews are currently deployed.

Short-term fix for long-term problem
Forest managers agree that the current fire risk is primarily a combination of two factors -- higher-than-average temperatures and a profusion of fuel, the product of nearly a century of fire suppression policies.

Recognizing widespread overgrowth in American forests, in the late 1970s the Forest Service began reintroducing policies of prescribed burning and allowed many smaller, natural fires to burn out on their own, provided they didn't threaten lives or property. The decision this summer to attack all fires, while not a direct reversal of this policy, does represent a departure from that practice of natural restoration, said Jennifer Jones, a public affairs specialist with the Forest Service.

"We realize that we are making some trade-offs here," she said. "We're working within short-term fiscal restraints, and that almost always requires making tough choices."

The Forest Service's suppression budget was cut 6.3 percent this year, she added, while the country has experienced a rise in fire severity. Suppression costs for both 2011 and 2012 have been above the average of the past 10 years, requiring the service to transfer other funds from areas like research and recreation, she said.

Initial attack and suppression can be far less expensive than managing fires until they run their natural course, she added.

Forest managers are also worried that, given the heightened vulnerability of the landscape, small fires could easily burn out of control.

Under the new policy, any decision to allow fires to burn will have to be approved by regional forest managers. That is likely to result in a reduction in fire restoration, Jones said.

"Anytime you have an organization dealing with budget reductions, you're going to face agonizing choices," she said.

Seeing an uncomfortable trend
This summer's fires and exceptional heat have drawn renewed attention to the role of climate change in forest fire risks, with some policymakers taking note.

On Friday, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) heard testimony from experts and public officials on the toll that global warming has already taken on much of the Southwest (Greenwire, Aug. 20).

"Climate change is not just an issue that will affect future generations," he said. "The impacts are being felt today in different ways all around the country and around the world."

Nathan McDowell, a research scientist with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, testified that within three decades, the Southwest could approach conditions not seen since the mega-droughts of the 13th and 16th centuries.

"We know that precipitation predictions are our least predictable predictions within current climate models," he said yesterday. "Our predictions on temperature are rock-solid, though. Depending on when and if we manage to curb CO2 emissions, the rising temperatures alone could push the forests of the Southwest into mega-drought levels" not seen for 500 years.

At that point, he said, "we won't even call what we're seeing now a drought -- it'll be the norm."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500