What Australia’s Megafires Mean for the West

The news coming out of Australia has been almost unbearable. Despite a week of welcome rain, the worst fire season in the continent’s history—an unprecedented combination of drought, wind, and record-breaking temperatures that has been going on since September—continues, this time with a new blaze threatening Canberra. Fires have merged into megafires, species and their habitat have been flattenedmunicipal water supplies are full of ash, and the air was so noticeably unbreathable in Melbourne that the pros at the Australian Open started donating money for every ace. (One out of two Australians have donated money for relief efforts.) In all, over 27 million acres have burned, more than 10 times the amount scorched in California in 2018, the state’s worst year for wildfires.

One of the casualties was Selwyn Ski Area, in the Snowy Mountains between Sydney and Melbourne. The family-owned resort went up in flames on January 6, its base area buildings and lifts reduced to rubble and burned earth. Thirty miles to the north, Australia’s largest ski resorts, Thredbo and Perisher, were using snow guns to saturate the ground in case of incoming fires. 

A scorched ski area may be superficial in the face of ecosystem destruction, and it feels callow to be thinking about skiing when species are being wiped out. But the way that Australia is dealing with devastation, and how quickly that devastation came, feels like a spooky portent for what’s coming next. Selwyn is a point-source look at a big picture problem: How do we develop and protect places and infrastructure on the edges of fire-prone zones? And how do we prepare for a hotter, drier future when things are going to get worse?

According to the National Ski Patrol, 100 percent of ski areas sit in what’s called the wildland-urban interface, right on the seams between nature and development, where buildings intrude into burnable vegetation. They’re human-constructed landscapes, with lift towers and lodges that depend, conceptually, on wildness and open space. Because of that balance, and the way we’ve built infrastructure into forests and other wild areas, they’re highly vulnerable to wildfire.

2018 article from the University of California Riverside found that the wildland-urban interface is where wildfire problems are most pronounced. It’s also the fastest growing land-use type in the continental United States. We’re pressing farther into that liminal space, because we want to be close to nature, but when we do, we don’t want to let our surroundings burn. That creates a dangerous build-up of burnable fuel. Essentially we’re setting ourselves up for longer and hotter fires with both human and natural assets at stake.

Fires near ski areas aren’t rare. Sun Valley has a popular backcountry zone called the Burn, which was torched in the 2007 Castle Rock Fire and then nearly burned again in 2013. In June 2018, smoke covered a wide swath of Colorado, as the Buffalo Fire crept toward Keystone and Breckenridge and the 416 Fire burned near Purgatory. Last summer, Arizona Snowbowl was forced to cancel summer operation for months because of fire danger in the Coconino National Forest. Pick a summer, and there’s almost guaranteed to be a fire somewhere close to ski lifts.

As is painfully clear in Australia, climatic factors are making blazes more dangerous. Last year was Australia’s hottest on record, followed closely by 2018 and 2017. Rainfall across the continent was 40 percent lower than average, with December setting a record for the lowest amount. According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, “The three years from January 2017 to December 2019 has been the driest on record for any 36-month period.” As fires broke out in the desiccated brush, strong winds fanned the flames and the fires got so big that they created their own weather patterns, building winds and lighting strikes, making things worse.

Australia is one of the most climatically vulnerable developed nations, but as seasons trend hotter and drier, the States could face similar conditions. And because fires are multi-faceted, even a solid winter snowpack can’t guarantee safety. For instance, last year, in California, a wet spring set off a bloom of plant growth, but then a hot summer dried it out and turned it to an excess of burnable fuel. We can’t assume even a couple of wet winters are going to erase the risk.

Mountain communities are trying, to varying degrees, to come to terms with the danger. They must assume that fires will be part of the landscape, not just one-off emergencies, and plan for prevention, evacuation, and mitigation. Adrienne Saia Isaac, from the National Ski Areas Association, says the resorts are talking about it a lot now, especially out west. They’re providing wildfire-preparedness-and-response training, and encouraging resorts to share preparedness plans, so no one has to start from scratch.  

In November, California’s Sugar Bowl became a national Fire Protection Association FireWise site, which means they have they have an area-wide protocol for fire prevention and response. They cleared out the ladder fuels and the dense, dying trees. They made evacuation plans for when, not if, the fires come. Ski areas on public land in the West are working with the Forest Service to formulate mitigation and preparedness plans. Isaac says that southwestern ski areas like Taos and Arizona Snowbowl have solid ones in place. 

Ski areas are planning for the future—limiting risk, but also preparing for devastation. Building and being in the blast zone is to gamble on an uncertain future. The Australian fires have shown us how quickly the places we love and depend on can go up in flames.

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