Sep 16, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Fighting fire with fire

Photo of a firefighter at a wildfire in California on Sept. 15

A firefighter works on the scene of a wildfire in California on Sept. 15. Photo: Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images

The catastrophic wildfires in parts of the West are a product of climate change, but also decades of failure to use controlled fire to reduce fuel load.

Why it matters: Warming temperatures in the years ahead will only intensify the climatic conditions that can lead to massive wildfires. That puts more pressure to scale up land management techniques that can clear overgrown forests before they ignite.

Driving the news: On a short trip to California on Monday to discuss the wildfires that are already the most extensive in the state's history, President Trump downplayed the connection to climate change and focused on forest management practices that he said had left too much fuel to burn.

  • Reality check: Scientists have no doubt that major factors in the wildfires are unusually high temperatures and dry weather that can be traced back to climate change.
  • "What we're seeing this year is more in line with what our climate models suggested wouldn't happen until the middle of the century," says Matthew Hurteau, an ecologist at the University of New Mexico.

But, but, but: Trump does have a point — shared by most wildfire experts — that how we've managed forests in the West also plays a role in the size of the infernos.

  • Forests are more dense today, and as warmer, drier air evaporates water that would otherwise be available to vegetation, forests are also drier.
  • "The truth is, it's both climate change and fuels management that are overlapping and coming together in a really unfortunate way," says Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council.

By the numbers: The amount of prescribed burning — purposefully setting controlled fires to clear forest — in the West remained stable or even decreased between 1998 and 2018.

  • According to a 2020 paper co-authored by Rebecca Miller of Stanford University, up to half of the acreage planned for prescribed burning in California is not actually burned, likely as a result of budgets, cultural preferences and opposition by some landowners.
  • In the same paper, Miller estimated that 20 million acres of California's forest land — nearly a fifth of the state's total territory — would benefit from fuel treatment, including prescribed burning. Yet just 125,000 acres of wildlands are treated each year in California with prescribed burns.
  • "We are definitely in the hole," says Miller.

What to watch: Whether the catastrophic fires of 2020 finally alter the practices of wildfire suppression.

  • In her paper, Miller found bad wildfire years tended to be followed by more legislative bills advocating prescribed burns.
  • In 2018, California passed new laws designed to speed more prescribed burning, and state lawmakers have committed more than $200 million to fire prevention efforts.
"I think that there's a mindset that needs to change among the public in accepting that these are not lush green landscapes that don't experience fire."
— Matthew Hurteau

Background: Many of the forests in the West, especially around the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, had adapted to burn regularly.

  • Studies indicate as many as 11.8 million acres of forest burned annually in pre-European settlement times, in part because Native Americans regularly made use of what are now known as prescribed burns.

But that shifted in the 20th century, when a culture of absolute fire suppression was exported to the U.S. from Germany, where temperate forests are less dependent on regular fire.

  • In 2018, the U.S. Forest Service spent nearly half its budget on wildfire management, with much of that going to fire suppression, while California has budgeted $1.8 billion for wildfire suppression, significantly more than goes to prevention.
  • At the same time, development has grown in fire-vulnerable areas, with 25 million more people living in wildland-urban interface zones around the country in 2010 than in 1990.
  • More people means more pressure to suppress wildfires early and often to protect homes, and more barriers to the kind of regular prescribed burning that many parts of California needs, says Timothy Ingalsbee, the executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology.

The big picture: Even if the U.S. embarks on far more aggressive climate action, the dice will be loaded for powerful fires years into the future. That means we'll also need aggressive adaptation on the ground and be willing to accept a different western landscape.

"We have to realize and accept [no matter] how much we throw at this problem, it is still going to take decades to solve and mitigate some of the hazard from these fires. It took us over 100 years to get into this predicament."
— Matthew Hurteau
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