Fire to Fight Fire: Setting a Match to California’s Growing Wildland Fire Problem

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On August 18, 2020, Ryan Masters was sitting in his home in the Santa Cruz Valley. Outside his window, the ominous orange glow of fire grew ever larger. Two days earlier, he had woken up to the sight of Bonny Doon, just two canyons away, burning to the ground. Now he waited, checking in with the local fire department, watching as the thick plumes of smoke drew closer. Later that day, confirmation came in the form of a buzzing phone: the entire area was to be evacuated. His family headed for a safe zone in the Bay Area, where they would spend two weeks camping on the lawn of a friend. Waiting for news of when they could come home – or if there would be anything for them to come home to.

Mr. Masters’ story is not a unique one. California’s wildfires are burning bigger and hotter than ever before, ripping through miles of dense, bone-dry forest and destroying thousands of homes and communities. Entire towns have been wiped off the map by fire. Smoke from the largest blazes can permeate hundreds of miles away, descending like a suffocating blanket on the state’s largest cities, where millions of people live and work. These fires are not random occurrences. California has been tampering with its forests for a century now: suppressing national fires and facilitating the buildup of plant and tree life. The result is a startling increase in the size and intensity of the wildfire season. And the policy of repression has become so embedded in our culture, changing attitudes will be no easy task.

The problem originates more than a hundred years ago, when the first fire-fighting efforts began to disturb traditional ecosystems. Fire is a natural and important part of the ecological cycle: it helps to remove dead matter, fertilize soil, and some species of trees even require the intense heat to release seeds, including many of the pines that dominate the American West. California’s original inhabitants knew this: prior to colonization, many Native American tribes practiced controlled burns to clear undergrowth and provide rich forage for game. But as white settlers moved in, forcibly removing the natives, fire came to be seen as something else: a threat. European society was ill-suited for the Pacific climate: the small, isolated agricultural communities that white pioneers built could be easily and permanently destroyed by fire, a danger that had never existed for the nimble, primarily hunter-gathererindigenous tribes. The demand for timber also gave forests a monetary value to Anglo colonists. In 1910, a devastating wildfire known as the “Big Burn” tore through the west, burning millions of acres of timber and killing at least eighty-five people. This was the last straw for many: following the fire, the recently created Forest Service saw an abrupt increase in support and funding. They put this money to work, initiating a policy of total fire suppression, the beginning of an ecological shift that would result in a crisis. Historians have suggested that the policy’s pioneers were unaware of the damage being inflicted.

But the effect is the same: complete wildfire suppression has been the prevailing tactic for a century, dramatically affecting the forests, and the result is a rise in devastating wildfires. A recent study found that in 1911, there were nineteen trees thicker than six inches in diameter per acre in parts of California. By 2013, just one hundred and two years later, that number had swelled to 260. In 2003, a report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) directly linked tree overcrowding to the rise in high-intensity, catastrophic wildfires. These are known as “Crown Fires.” Born out of an abundance of dead matter and flammable plant life, they spread fast and burn hot, making it difficult for firefighters to contain them.

The increasing frequency of these fires has created a crisis: the majority of California’s all-time largest and most destructive burns have occurred in recent years. In 2020, more than four million acres of land burned in California, twice as many as any other year in all of recorded history. Thirty-one people died, in addition to more than ten billion dollars in property damage. And things are only getting worse. Climate change is making winters dryer and summers hotter, contributing to the tinderbox burn-readiness of the forests. “If no action is taken,” said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University, “then we estimate that by 2040, 2020 would look like a normal fire season.”

Luckily for the Masters, the fire never reached their hometown of Lompico. Their family is safe and house unscathed. But for some, the wildfires have taken everything. In an interview with The New York Times, Jason Kramer and his husband described the process of losing their home. On the night the 3200-acre Almeda complex reached their house, the Kramers loaded into their car and struck out into a burning world, the sky choked by smoke and ash, the droning sounds of helicopters ringing in their ears. Their home and most of their worldly possessions lay behind them. Nothing would survive. “We fled the fire and slept in our car that night,” Jason said. “Our conversation for probably the last month has been, ‘Where do we go?’ But we love where we live.” That’s a question that’s been asked too many times — over ten thousand buildings were damaged or destroyed in 2020.

Even for those who were able to come home, life won’t ever be the same. Lompico sits at the cusp of one of the state’s “Severe Hazard” zones, something that residents are acutely aware of. Many have chosen never to return, leaving behind California’s wildlands for areas without the same risk. In Lompico, signs in windows or staked into lawns reading “For Sale” have become a regular sight. And for those who remain, fire can no longer be seen as something abstract. After the events of last summer, the threat feels stark and immediate, a coiled snake waiting to strike. “I think it’s telling that they’ve stopped using the word ‘Climate Change’. Now they use ‘Climate Emergency,’” Masters said. “That’s what it feels like up here. It feels like an emergency.”

A fairly viable short-term solution exists. California’s dense population and the increased flammability of forests mean that allowing natural fire to return is off the table. But controlled burns, in which humans ignite and manage low-intensity, carefully contained fires to clear overgrowth, can make a real impact. They won’t stop the fires — nothing short of an act of God could do that. But they can help. A federally commissioned report found that using prescribed fire reduced wildfire intensity by 76 percent, and lowered the average area burned by an incredible 37 percent. Given the strategy’s effectiveness, it is chronically underused in the west. “Prescribed fire has actually decreased over the last 21 years in the western United States,” Crystal Kolden, a professor at the University of Idaho, told the Associated Press. “This means one of our best tools to reduce wildfire disasters is not being used.”

But ramping up controlled burning won’t be simple. Prescribed fires still emit smoke, which may cause health issues among those who inhale it – groups like the American Lung Association have previously opposed intentional fires due to this. In addition, forests are not uniformly owned: about fifty-seven percent are on federal land, forty percent belong to private holders and the remainder belong to the state and various Indian reservations. Tackling the wildfire problem will require that these bodies, who don’t necessarily share the same goals, cooperate. And it will require money. Current spending is woefully short of what is needed to reach the level of burning that experts advocate, and there is little reason to believe that that will change anytime soon. “It’s money that’s just not there right now,” California state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson told Pew. And according to Wara, getting people on board with the idea, even those involved with fire control, is not an easy task. Americans have been taught for generations that fire is an enemy, a notion that reverberates into fire-fighting communities. “You don’t go into firefighting because you want to do prescribed burns. You go in because you want to save people,” Wara said. “[Prescribed fire] is a new idea, and it is not one the firefighting agencies really embrace.”

There are ways to tackle the issues that controlled fire presents. Public education campaigns, similar to ones deployed against smoking or for vaccination drives, could help to erase the legacy of decades of anti-fire messaging. Prescribed burns can be conducted on days where the wind and forest conditions pose the least risk to humans. And because many firefighting departments are not prepared or not willing to use prescribed fire, Wara advocates for new agencies to be created to deal specifically with fire prevention. Such bodies could optimize the process and allow firefighters to focus on their principal task.

But for any of this to happen, far more money is necessary. At present, California spends more than five times as much on wildfire suppression as it does on prevention. That must change. Action is also needed from the federal government, the single biggest owner of forest land in the United States. Financial incentives could help encourage private owners to use prevention tactics on their property. For now, any grand plans are little more than conjecture. But there are encouraging signs: in 2018, California and the USDA signed a joint initiative to treat 500,000 acres of wildland for fire prevention annually. The 2021 California budget agreed to by lawmakers includes a major uptick in fire prevention funding. And people are starting to realize the need for such measures, says Masters; he describes efforts to clear hillsides near his hometown. “It changed a lot of perceptions up here,” he said. “[The fire] changed everyone.”

In the long run, a warming planet and our continued development into forested areas mean that destructive fires are unavoidable. But after a century of mismanagement, better forest policy can have a real, tangible impact in reducing the scale of California’s crisis. For Ryan Masters and the millions of others impacted by the fires, it is imperative. The idea has a proven history of success and has been endorsed by experts in the scientific community. Time for America to get on board. “We have the ability to prevent natural disasters,” Wara said. “Imagine if we could prevent hurricanes. Wouldn’t that be worth it?”





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