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As wildfire season got off to a hot start Southern California last week, we note that its been a rough start to the 21st century for firefighters.
Since the turn of the century, wildfires have burned more acres than in any other time period since record keeping began in 1960. This year’s fire prediction has the potential to continue the trend while budget sequestration and a dry winter in California, Oregon Southern Washington and Montana, threaten to exacerbate it.
And while wildfires are a natural part of the outdoors, rampant wildfires have become a reality that the recreational economy must deal with.
“In the past decade, with exception of one or two years, every year was a 6-, 7-, 8- or 9-million [burned] acre year,” said Randy Eadly, spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center (this is compared to a 4.3 million acres average over the previous 53 year period). From the 20-year span between 1992-2012, fires consumed roughly 116 million acres while the 30-year span before that (1961 to 1991), consumed only 110 million acres. This is partially due to warming trends and drought in recent years as well as political pressure to suppress fires (only to have larger fires later). When localized, these fires can wreak havoc on the local recreation economy.
“The last truly big fire season [before 2012] in Colorado was 2002 with the Hayman Fire and Wolcott Fire. Sales in the Front Range collapsed in the double digits that year,” said Scott Jaeger, senior manager retail analytics for Leisure Trends. Last year, the state of Colorado hoped for a third straight year of record breaking tourism and was instead, met with a record year for fires. And while fires in Colorado grabbed national headlines with 251 million acres burned, fires in 11 other states had greater damage: Alaska (286 million acres), California (814 million acres), Idaho (1.53 billion acres), Montana (1.2 billion acres), Nebraska (316 million acres), New Mexico (372 million acres), Nevada (613 million acres) Oregon (1.25 billion acres), Utah (415 million acres), Washington (260 million acres) and Wyoming (446 million acres).
This year, Colorado’s fire outlook has receded thanks to heavy snowfalls in recent months, but the outlook for California, Oregon, as well as parts of Washington and Montana have been raised to above normal due to the lack of winter snowpack to crush vegetation. To add fuel to the fire, officials say the sequester will add challenges to the land management agencies in charge of fighting the fires.
“We’ll hire 1,000 fewer seasonal and some of them include Red Cards [seasonal licensed fire fighters],” said Jeff spokesman for the National Park Service. “Seasonals who were available to fight last year won’t be there this year.” The National Park Service is one of many land management agencies that will hire fewer firefighters in the coming months. This will mean that guide services and parks will have to get creative in dealing with fires.
Guide services like Colorado Climbing based in Colorado Springs hold permits in multiple climbing areas in case one area is affected by fire. They offer free rescheduling and relocating climbs, but a 50 percent penalty for outright cancellations. Land management agencies prescribe fires in the wetter seasons to prevent larger fires during the drier months while also forewarning visitors to avoid uses stoves and in riskier months.
Fires are a necessary part of the outdoors and when mitigated, can lead to a fresher and more scenic environment. Yet as wildfires increase, the recreation economy will have to adapt.