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Loss of Arizona firefighters must spur new thinking on wildfires

The loss of 19 firefighters in Arizona can serve as reminder of why the US must deal with basic causes for a rise in forest fires. Stakeholders, from homeowners to the timber industry, must cooperate on solutions.

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Members of the US Forest Service's Blue Ridge Hotshots and other firefighters watch as the Yarnell Hill Fire advances on the town of Yarnell, Ariz., June 30.

Tom Story/The Arizona Republic/AP

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The loss of 19 firefighters in an Arizona wildfire has brought nationwide sympathy for their families. This is the highest number of firefighters killed since the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center towers and the largest loss of firefighters in any wildfire since 1933.

But the tragedy should also refocus attention on the scope and nature of wildfires in the United States. Since 2000, the nation has experienced eight of the nine worst fire seasons in terms of land burned. And in eight states from California to Florida since 2007, wildfires have set new records in size or destructiveness.

Improving the skills and safety of firefighters is obviously only one answer to Sunday’s tragedy. The causes for today’s wildfires, mainly in the Southwest, have become far more complex. More people are building homes near forests. Shifting weather patterns have brought longer droughts, hotter temperatures, and higher wind speeds. Beetle infestations have created more tinderbox conditions.

In addition, Americans still have a strong tendency to suppress any forest fire, leaving timberlands with excess underbrush that only fuels bigger fires.

Dealing with these causes requires far more cooperation across a greater number of stakeholders, from the US Forest Service to the timber industry to new residents near wilderness areas. To accept difficult solutions for wildfires, all players must develop trust and forge agreements, often with humility. Sometimes the solutions may not even work. It can be difficult to predict forest ecology or to know what is sustainable in nature.

One of the more ambitious projects in bringing together stakeholders has been the Four Forest Restoration Initiative based in northern Arizona. It aims to thin out more than 2 million acres of trees in four national forests over the next 20 years and allow for prescribed burns in hopes of creating a self-regulating mechanism for fires.

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