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What Should We Know About Wildfires in California

by Rolf Skar

August 17, 2020

As California deals with another series of devastating wildfires, little attention is given to the issues that can make wildfires bigger, faster, and more dangerous to people and our nation’s treasured wildlands. Here's a look at what's behind the occurrence of forest and wildland fires today.

The 2018 Holy Fire, © David McNew / Greenpeace

© David McNew / Greenpeace

Updated September 10, 2020

As California enters an already historic and devastating wildfire season, little attention has been given to the issues that can make wildfires bigger, faster, and more dangerous to people and our nation’s treasured wildlands. Here’s a look at what’s behind the occurrence of forest and wildland fires today.

This year has already broken records, with the largest wildfire in the state’s history just one of many fires burning simultaneously through more than 2.5 million acres and forcing tens of thousands to evacuate their homes — all during a global pandemic where air quality and the ability to shelter-in-place are of critical importance to COVID-19 outcomes. In 2018, the Camp Fire in Northern California became the most deadly fire in the state’s recorded history. That same year, destructive fires burned in Southern California – the Woolsey and Hill fires engulfed iconic areas of Malibu and West Hills, leaving dozens dead, hundreds missing, and thousands of structures destroyed.

Dramatic media stories tend to highlight what’s currently happening with firefighting efforts, but little attention is spent looking at the vast number of issues that influence wildfire behavior and how they impact people and our nation’s treasured wildlands.

Worse, some politicians and corporations spread misinformation and false solutions when fires burn in an attempt to capitalize on these emergency situations and push an anti-environmental agenda. Trump and his Department of the Interior have long parroted talking points from a logging industry that is trying to gut environmental safeguards and increase taxpayer subsidized logging on public lands.

The following list is not a specific analysis of current or recent events, but rather a wider look at trends impacting the occurrence of both forest and wildland fires today.

2016 Soberanes Fire in Alameda, California, © Alameda County Fire

2016 Soberanes Fire in Alameda, California, © Alameda County Fire

Industrial logging has increased fire risk

Despite what the logging industry often says about needing more logging to remove ‘fuel’, study after study has shown us that industrial logging makes communities less safe. By removing large commercially-valuable trees — the very trees which are the most resistant to fire, and which create shade, logging is increasing fires and fire risk. Logging older trees and opening up the forest canopy makes things hotter and drier, and more prone to fire. The sticks and wood left over from logging, called “slash,” often remain behind for years on the ground and can act as kindling.

Industrial logging also requires roads. Many thousands of old, unused logging roads riddle the U.S. National Forests, serving as superhighways for flammable, invasive weeds. In addition, these roads increase accidental and intentional human fires in our forests. The legacy of taxpayer subsidized logging on our public lands and industrial logging on private lands has left us with a mess that will take many generations to fix.

Solution: Refocus the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management away from subsidized industrial logging to jobs focused on ecological restoration and preventative fire safety.

Smokey the Bear was wrong

A “put out every fire” approach to wildland fire management for decades has left us with a fire deficit which can fuel unusually big, hot fires. Many forests in the West have “skipped” fires that naturally would have occurred due to overly-aggressive fire suppression. Ecologically speaking, these forests need to burn, as they have for thousands of years, to sustain a cycle of life, death, and renewal. We need to protect people and property, but extinguishing every wildland fire in a region that needs them to regenerate only, well, backfires over time.

There are a whole host of things fires do for natural forests to keep them healthy, and to fuel the cycle of life, death, and regeneration that sustained forests for thousands of years before Europeans showed up. Heavy-handed fire suppression is strongly supported by the logging industry whose spokespersons now, ironically, call for more aggressive logging to remedy the mistake they helped perpetrate in our forests for decades.

Solution: Prioritize fire-fighting to protect human lives and property; don’t risk the lives of firefighters and waste taxpayer money on fires that are not threats to communities. And leave fire-affected forests alone to allow for natural regeneration — some of the most ecologically important forests in the American West are intact post-fire forests, known as snag forests, that provide vital wildlife habitat and are home to numerous imperiled species, such as Great Gray Owls, California Spotted Owls, and Black-backed Woodpeckers.

Smokey the Bear was (sorta) right

No matter how hot or dry, forests don’t spontaneously burst into flames. An ignition source is needed to get a fire going. In nature, it’s really only lightning strikes that serve as ignitions. And lightning often comes with rain. However, human activity is really good at starting fires in a wide variety of ways, from campfires, cigarette butts, and fireworks to sparks from trailer hitch chains dragging on a road. Urban infrastructure, like power lines, can also start fires, especially when not properly maintained.

These human-caused ignitions often happen at times of year when natural ignitions would rarely occur (such as extreme droughts when lightning storms are relatively rare). Humans are so ‘good’ at starting fires that more than 80 percent of wildland fires in the American West are ignited by human activity.

Solution: Reduce human-caused fire ignitions by closing and removing unneeded logging roads, and continue public education efforts (we can agree on this, Smokey). In addition, Smokey should also bring his message to corporations and governments that are in charge of the high risk infrastructure that oftentimes sparks these fires.

Climate change can make the problems humans have created worse

Though it is impossible to point to any fire and say climate change has single-handedly caused it, there is broad scientific consensus that global warming will bring hotter, drier conditions to the American West, and set the stage for more dramatic fire events, including a longer fire season, an increase in larger fires, and fires that can grow more rapidly. This, combined with decades of unsustainable logging, road-building, and fire suppression could push forests beyond their capacity to deal with fire.

Solution: Conserve natural forests, stop the expansion of fossil fuels, and foster a just transition into renewable energy sources to prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Development

Part of the skyrocketing cost of wildland fire fighting has resulted from expanded human development into what once was remote, fire-prone landscapes. With more homes and buildings in hot-zones, there is more need for aggressive firefighting when fires do take place. Just as building in a flood-plain or seismically-active area, homes and human infrastructure in fire-prone areas should be built and maintained with fire safety in mind.

Solution: Be smart about development, and be fire-ready. Update municipal codes to require elements proven to safeguard homes (known as home hardening), like vent and chimney screens and fire resistant roofs. Prioritize prescribed burns and mechanical fuel removal in and around communities where it will do the most good. Fund these efforts, and make sure rich and poor alike can live in fire-safe homes. Prevention is worth much more, in terms of human lives, forest health, firefighter safety, and taxpayer dollars than desperate last-ditch fire fighting.

2016 Erskine Fire in Central California, © US Forest Service

2016 Erskine Fire in Central California, © US Forest Service

Fire-fighting has changed — and it now involves a lot more burning

Forest fire fighting has evolved over time based on technology, science and, perhaps most dramatically, politics. The U.S. government’s approach to fire once was one of full-on direct attack — an approach that is costly and dangerous. Now, an informal policy known as “back off and backfire” dominates. Backfires, which are set by fire fighting teams, burn up fuel from a fire break so that when the wildfire reaches that zone, it has little to burn. Backfires are now a significant percentage of total fire size. Simply put, the U.S. now has a fire fighting strategy that involves making a lot more fire happen — literally “fighting fire with fire”. The given fire’s total size, regularly reported by the media, rarely includes an acknowledgment that some of the “fire” is actually the “fire fighting.” And, the ecological effects of backfires are only starting to be evaluated.

Solution: Since they are two different things, the U.S. government should track and report the difference between “real” fires and backfires (aka “suppression fires”). Federal and local authorities should also fund ecological studies of the effects of backfires to better inform forest management over time.

Learn more about how you can protect forests.

Originally published on November 16, 2018. 

Rolf Skar

By Rolf Skar

Rolf Skar is the Campaigns Director at Greenpeace USA. Since 2007, Rolf has contributed to international Greenpeace campaigns to stop deforestation in the Canadian boreal forest, the Paradise forests of Southeast Asia, and the Brazilian Amazon.

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