Fire season is coming to the North Coast. Already this year, fires have raged through Canada and hurricane wind-driven wildfires devastated Lahaina, Maui. These events are scary and tragic. A normal reaction is to look for solutions and ways to keep families and homes safe. But when we do so, it is vital that we search out solutions that actually work and don’t just make us feel better. So here are a few things to know about fire, and some real actions we can take to improve the situation.
What to know about wildfire in California:
1. Fire is natural.
Fire is as natural as rain for most of California’s forests. Prior to European contact, fires burned much larger areas of California than they do today. Those fires restored nutrients to the soil, cleared decaying brush, and helped plants germinate.
Native plants have adapted to survive fire. Some trees attempt to withstand the flames by developing thick, fire-resilient bark; others, like lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta), have serotinous cones that require fire to open and release their seeds. Fires cause wildflowers to superbloom and benefit woodpeckers.
Even coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), endemic to California’s dank, moist temperate rainforests of the North Coast, are adapted to fire. Walk through an old-growth redwood forest and you’ll notice the evidence: burn scars, bearing witness to historic burns either deliberately set by humans or naturally caused. Fire may look destructive to us, but without it our forests wouldn’t be as magnificent as they are. That the redwoods of Big Basin Redwoods State Park survived the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fire is no surprise; they have likely been through worse.
2. Putting out a fire makes the next one more intense.
Understanding the historic and ongoing mismanagement of California’s forests is necessary to understand, in part, what is happening today. Although California’s forests are born to burn, for many decades we have aggressively attempted to put out every fire as soon as possible. As a result, some forests have conditions that can make high-severity fire more likely to occur: ladder fuels, dense thickets, and a pileup of undecomposed “fuel” on the forest floor. Indigenous Californians have always understood this and, prior to European contact, they regularly conducted cultural burns that helped maintain balance. White settlers used violence to stop this millenia-old practice, and today we are living with the consequences. Unfortunately, the mismanagement continues. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), and to a lesser extent the U.S. Forest Service, still prioritize extinguishing fires instead of letting them (safely) burn.
3. Logged forests burn more intensely than conserved ones.
This is perhaps the biggest myth that needs busting. Logging the most profitable (i.e. largest) trees from a forest leaves behind smaller, more flammable trees that burn more quickly and spread fires faster. Logging opens the forest canopy, allowing drier conditions and more sunlight to increase the growth of brushy vegetation. Logging also produces highly flammable slash piles that act as kindling during wildfires.
In the last century, most of our forests have been logged and replaced with plantations of densely packed, equally sized trees that burn fast and hot when ignited. In recent years across the US, fires have burned with the least intensity in areas with the most protections from logging. The Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise, California in 2018, burned through a logged forest. EPIC has challenged numerous forest projects that are advertised as “fire prevention” but actually entail standard logging practices that are known to exacerbate wildfires.
The dual policy of extinguishing fires and logging forests by government agencies and private contractors is sometimes referred to as the fire-industrial complex.
4. Climate change is lengthening fire season and intensifying fires.
Climate change is already causing longer and more frequent droughts. These droughts dry out vegetation, which makes fires more likely to ignite, spread faster once they do, and harder to put out. These dry conditions have led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970.
The latest IPCC report indicates that even under the most optimistic climate scenarios (which we are currently not doing enough to achieve), many of these changes are now irreversible. Every molecule of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere increases the likelihood of drought and resultantly wildfire. So, one of the best things we can do long-term is reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
5. People keep building homes in places that are going to burn down.
Another part of the problem is that we’ve continued to expand building homes in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), the area where people’s homes begin to encroach into formerly undeveloped areas. Since 1990, we’ve built a large percentage of all new homes in California in the WUI. As more and more people live deeper and deeper in previously undeveloped areas, firefighters are faced with more structures and lives to protect. And protecting those structures and lives gets more difficult. For example, folks who live on narrow, one-way roads are incredibly difficult to evacuate during emergencies.
In addition, many wildfires are started by human ignitions. The more people that live in the WUI, the more likely human ignitions are to occur—increasing the frequency of wildfires. Despite knowing that development in the WUI makes fires more damaging to people’s lives and property, the Board of Forestry recently attempted to change the rules regarding new development in order to permit even more development in the WUI. Luckily, those rules were shot down by a coalition of environmentalists and wildland firefighters.
Instead of expanding into the WUI, we should be building more homes in already developed areas. Allowing more dense development in existing communities is one of the best things we can do to increase wildfire safety. This gives wildland firefighters fewer acres to protect, and allows wildfires to burn naturally and safely away from people’s homes. For homes that are already established in the WUI, it is important to create defensible space. For example, people in the mid-Klamath watershed have a prescribed fire program, which provides funding and services for landowners to do prescribed underburns that burn slowly through dense underbrush and leave mature trees standing.
6. Fighting fires is both environmentally and financially costly.
The decision to suppress wildfires is a costly one. For the 2020-2021 season, CAL FIRE budgeted $2.1 billion dollars on wildfire response. And federal fire suppression costs have been climbing for decades. Unfortunately, as firefighting costs have soared, our land managers have had fewer resources to spend on other vital programs. A lot of the money goes to so-called “heavy metal” suppression resources such as bulldozers and airplanes. But the evidence indicates that these methods are not only financially costly, but environmentally destructive as well.
One common modern firefighting tool is the construction of dozer lines. A dozer line is constructed by having a bulldozer cut through forests and areas of vegetation, with the hope that the cleared area can act as a containment line for a fire. The problem is that bulldozing through the forest has detrimental ecological impacts. In order to construct a dozer line, all of the surface vegetation is removed and the soils are disturbed. This disturbance permanently damages the environment. Long after vegetation has recovered in areas burned by the fire, dozer lines remain as open wounds, oozing soil and mud into mountain streams. Dozer lines can also become superhighways for invasive plants to colonize new areas of the forest after a fire. These invasive species, which are often far more flammable than natives, can then ironically make the next fire more severe. Not to mention, dozer lines create unmonitored access routes to our public lands that are often taken advantage of by illegal off-road vehicle users and marijuana growers.
The effectiveness of dozer lines has become a controversial subject with some firefighters arguing that money and lives are being wasted in a fruitless effort. During the 2018 Carr fire, numerous dozer lines were carved into the hills and ridgelines north, south and west of Redding in an attempt to stop the spread of the fire, but almost all of them were breached by flying embers that lofted over the gaps in hot, dry, fast-moving winds. During particularly windy days, fires can spot more than a mile ahead of the fire. Large fires have been known to jump wide barriers including large rivers and wide freeways. In these situations, dozer lines provide little defense. It would be one thing if this technique was used solely to protect people’s homes, but firefighters often bulldoze these lines deep into the hearts of our forests and wilderness areas.
Air suppression tactics are another costly fire fighting measure. CAL FIRE and the Forest Service spend millions of dollars fighting fires from the air. In 2020, the federal government and state agencies dropped over 56 million gallons of fire retardant, which costs an average of $3.10 per gallon. Phos-Chek, the chemical compound most commonly used in fire retardant, is known to be harmful to aquatic life including chinook salmon.
If these financially and ecologically costly techniques are to be used, they should be reserved for situations where fires are close to people’s homes.
What can be done?
1. We need to let the wildfire cycle return to a more natural state.
By letting wildfires burn when they don’t threaten people’s lives and property, and by increasing the frequency of prescribed fires, we can help return the land to a natural cycle of wildfire. This includes allowing Indigenous Peoples to have more control over their lands so that they can reintroduce traditional burning practices. This will decrease the overall fuel level on the forest floor, and reduce wildfire size and severity.
2. We need to stop building new homes in the WUI.
We can’t afford to keep expanding developments deeper and deeper into wildfire-prone areas. That means constructing more dense infill housing within the perimeters of existing towns and cities. Dense walkable housing has the additional wildfire benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
3. We need to construct defensible space and harden homes that already exist in wildfire-prone areas.
By retrofitting homes to be designed to survive wildfires, we can greatly reduce the risks associated with fire. Fire planning also requires making sure people have the ability to evacuate quickly and safely. This will allow firefighters to focus on defending defensible structures, not struggling to stop blazes far from populated areas.
Wildfires can be scary. But with these changes we can learn to live with fire instead of constantly battling against it. Our current strategies aren’t working, and now it’s time to try something different. For more on reimagining wildfire management, check out the documentaries Catching Fire and Elemental, which powerfully depict these solutions.