We Are Dealing With Fire All Wrong

California is once again experiencing a record breaking fire season. Across the state, forests are burning, skies are full of smoke, and people fear for their homes and lives. There are four main culprits of the increased frequency and severity of wildfires. The first is climate change, which is 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. This has 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. The second culprit is logging. Harvesting the most profitable (largest) trees from the forest leaves behind smaller more flammable trees that burn more quickly and spread fires faster. It opens the forest canopy, allowing drier conditions and more sunlight to increase the growth of brushy vegetation. Harvesting also produced highly flammable slash that acts as kindling during a wildfire. In recent years across the US, fires have burned with the least intensity in areas with the most protections from logging.

The third culprit is firefighting itself. Fire is as natural as rain in 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. Fires are necessary to give forests certain old growth characteristics that our fire adapted species depend on. For example, our coast redwood forests historically benefitted from frequent surface fires. Fire may look destructive to us, but without it our forests wouldn’t be as magnificent as they are. When a forest is starved of fire for too long, fuels can build up which make the eventual fire that does break out more severe. Indigenous Californians have always known 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.

For decades, official Forest Service policy was to both prevent fires and put them out as soon as they started. In fact, the so-called “10 a.m. policy” required all fires on National Forest lands to be put out by 10 a.m. the day after their discovery. In recent decades, the Forest Service has softened its fire suppression approach somewhat by letting some fires burn when they don’t immediately threaten human lives. However, we’re already seeing political blow back to this strategy. That blowback led the Forest Service to clarify that “[e]very fire has a suppression objective.”

The decision to suppress fires is a costly one. For the 2020-2021 season, CAL FIRE budgeted $2.1 Billion dollars on wildfire response. And federal suppression costs have been climbing for decades. This is all in spite of the fact that many of the brave souls fighting these fires are inmates making about $1 a day. Unfortunately, as firefighting costs have soared, our land managers have had fewer resources to spend on other vital programs. For example, California recently cut funding for wildfire prevention treatments. A lot of the money goes to so-called “heavy metal” suppression resources such as dozers 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. The hope is 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 distrubed. 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. Those 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. This google earth image shows the roughly 700 miles of dozer lines that were constructed while battling the 2020 August Complex.

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 retardant, which costs on average $3.10 per gallon. Phoschek, the chemical compound most commonly used in fire fighting retardant, is known to be harmful to aquatic life including chinook salmon.

The final part of the problem is that we’ve continued to expand building homes in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). The Wildland Urban Interface is the area where people’s homes begin to encroach into formerly unoccupied areas. Since 1990, we’ve built a large percentage of all new homes in the WUI. As more and more people live deeper and deeper in 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. Despite knowing that development in the WUI makes fires more damaging to people’s lives and property, the Board of Forestry recently decided to permit even more development in the WUI.

The fact is that we need to learn to live with fire and that means doing three main things. First, we must 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 will decrease the overall fuel level and reduce wildfire size and severity. This includes allowing Indigenous Peoples to have more control over their lands so that they can reintroduce traditional burning practices. One way we can do this is by passing SB 332 which would permit more prescribed burns. Secondly, we need to stop building new homes in the WUI. We can’t afford to keep expanding deeper and deeper into wildfire prone areas. That means constructing more infill housing within the perimeters of existing towns and cities. Finally, we must construct defensible space and use home hardening on homes that already do exist in wildfire prone areas. By retrofitting homes to be designed to survive wildfires, we can greatly reduce the risks associated with fire. Planning also requires making sure people have the ability to evacuate quickly and safely.

Wildfires can be scary. But with these changes we can learn to live with fire instead of constantly battling against it. We are currently facing the fact that our current strategies aren’t working and now it’s time to try something different.