Wildfires Leave Local Communities Balancing Safety with Business

Image: Zereshk via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Unprecedented wildfires should cause alarm everywhere, but the fires are burning up more than trees for some communities. They’re burning up a way of life. Each year, National Forests are closing earlier and earlier in the season, leaving communities that rely on tourism and the draw of nature high and dry. During last month’s Pacific Northwest heatwave, the forest service closed Prescott, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves, and Coconino National Forests, the most simultaneous closures ever. As the West prepares for its new normal, National Forest communities are left wondering what comes next.

Why This Matters: COVID-19 saw closures across national forests, museums, and monuments. That translated to economic losses for local communities that rely on tourist income. Now those communities are hoping to gain visitors back, especially as coronavirus cabin fever gives way to family vacations. But with that demand comes potentially devastating consequences. More people means more chances of fire, and even one spark could destroy thousands of acres, especially as drought persists. President Biden has pledged to protect national forests in his America the Beautiful plan. But for now, forest-reliant communities are playing a balancing act between preserving their economies and preserving the forests for future generations.

High and Dry: Higher temperatures and dry conditions are the primary drivers of this years’ forest fires. At the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, rangers and ecologists use the FuelCast model to predict the amount of dry brush and grass in non-wooded areas.

But recently, ecologist Matt Reeves says the model began reporting unprecedented results. “Either there’s a hiccup in the data, or the algorithm blew up, or we are headed for uncharted territory,” he said. It turned out to be the latter. He says things have gotten so bad that no human can predict what’s next. “The baselines are changing. That makes the systems too complicated for human beings, so we need to allow the computer to read the patterns.”

While some businesses have survived on the business of some particularly determined tourists, business owners say they won’t be able to survive the fires themselves. One restaurant owner, Michael Dahling, recounts how an entire wedding party was forced to evacuate the area as a wildfire swept through the area nearby, “You can imagine — Friday night, there were 30 to 40 people here already, the bride and groom were crying.” Arizona’s monsoon season has finally arrived, bringing with it partial openings. Without swift climate action and protections for public lands, unpredictable fires and persistent drought will likely leave communities like Dahling’s in a precarious position for years to come.

Up Next

Indigenous Communities File Suit Against Ecuadorian Government to Protect Amazon

Indigenous Communities File Suit Against Ecuadorian Government to Protect Amazon

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer Earlier this year, Ecuador’s new President Guillermo Lasso issued decrees to expand oil and mining projects in the Amazon. Indigenous communities from the country’s rainforest are now suing the government in an effort to stop these projects, calling them a “policy of death,” according to reporting by Reuters. Community […]

Continue Reading 320 words
Giant Sequoias Threatened by California Fires 

Giant Sequoias Threatened by California Fires 

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer The giant sequoia trees in California’s Sequoia National Park are over 1,000 years old and could live another 2,000 years, but climate change-fueled fires are killing them. The trees can usually withstand the flames, but the intensity of recent fires has been overpowering. Last year’s Castle Fire killed up […]

Continue Reading 385 words
Amazonian Communities Urge International Action & Amazon.com Invests in Restoration

Amazonian Communities Urge International Action & Amazon.com Invests in Restoration

By Amy Lupica, ODP Daily Editor As wildfires and deforestation grip the Amazon rainforest, Indigenous communities are urging world governments to pledge to protect 80% of the forest by 2025. The groups launched their campaign at a biodiversity conference in France, where experts from around the world are laying the groundwork for the UN’s delayed […]

Continue Reading 441 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.