By Chris Morrill, Executive Director
Wildfire and Public Lands
We are enduring a seemingly unending string of traumas in California. The latest is a series of “megafires” which have impacted every corner of the state. It has led to the destruction of homes, the loss of life, and to everyone dealing with the impacts of wildfire smoke.
Wildfire is no longer an issue that is only impacting forested or rural communities. It impacts everyone and it is the responsibility of everyone to engage on this issue. This 2020 fire season (which still has months to go) will hopefully be the beginning of dramatic change in our approach to wildfire.
CalWild has spent the last few years grappling with the overlapping issues (some of which we don’t directly work on) when it comes to wildfire. We have partnered with many groups including practitioners who have spent years trying to deal with our forests’ health (or lack thereof). We have also engaged in early discussions with federal lawmakers on the issue.
The place to start with wildfire is that it is natural, necessary, and inevitable in California. Scientists studying the historical record of fire in California have concluded that anywhere between 4 and 12 million acres burned annually in the state for millennia. To put that in perspective, right now, in a fire season that is significantly worse than any we have ever seen, 3.8 million acres (as of 9/29) have burned so far. That includes the five fires that are among the states’ top 10 most destructive fires when measured by acreage.
This historic burning was prompted in part by natural causes and an inability to stop them, but also in large part by indigenous people. For millennia, they lived with and cultivated fire as both a spiritual and practical tool. They would burn at times when the risk of major fire was low which helped to clear out much of the fuel and resulted in significant ecological benefit. You can learn more about prescribed burning in our California Wildfires Explainer page.
After a millennia of adapting to fire, most of our ecosystems have been without fire for over a century. Agencies from the federal government and state adopted policies of 100% fire suppression. Not only did they strive to extinguish every fire, but they prevented indigenous populations from continuing cultural burning by arresting them and in some cases executing them.
Starting back in the 1970s (or even earlier in many cases) scientists with many public land agencies recognized the error of the fire suppression approach. However, overarching policies have not followed that realization. While some change has happened with the agencies returning fire to the land, it has been exceedingly slow and with a patchwork approach.
We should also note that many of the disturbances that have occurred on public lands (most notably logging) have created much denser and less diverse forests, thereby dramatically increasing the risk of fire. Public lands are by no means the only place this reassessment is needed, but since they constitute 44.5% of the landmass of the state, it must be an important part of the solution.
CalWild has compiled our key perspectives on the issue of wildfire outlined here. I welcome any feedback you have as this issue is exceedingly complex and involves many overlapping issues.
Fire is a natural and essential ecological process in many landscapes in California
We need to dramatically increase prescribed and cultural burning
For thousands of years, indigenous people practiced prescribed and cultural burning as a tool for ecological rejuvenation and to mitigate the risk of high severity fire. During that time the landscapes adapted to fire and relied on it for their health.
It is time to return to that approach. We must dramatically increase the amount of good fire in California. Although scientists and many policymakers within public lands agencies, have known this for decades, their hands were tied. There is an entire suite of incentives that make it less likely for agencies to do prescribed burning including clean air restrictions, liability issues, and public understanding and tolerance for fire.
However, the largest obstacle is money. Doing active, large scale restoration including prescribed burning is very labor intensive. Recently, a witness for the Forest Service was asked what they would need to do make a meaningful dent in the fire risk on National Forests, and he said two to three times their existing budget annually. That’s an additional one to two billion dollars per year. Even at that amount, it is still a lot cheaper to spend it on the front end.
We can utilize managed wildfire at a greater scale
Managed wildfire is another key tool. It allows fires to burn when they don’t pose a threat to the safety of people and the impacts of the smoke would be modest, thereby introducing needed fire to the landscape when it can be beneficial and can help avoid the larger fires that can happen when it’s not. For years, CalWild has argued that fire on roadless or other protected areas can be good for the overall health of these wild places and should be allowed to burn as long as people are not at risk. It can be an ecologically-effective and cost-effective.
Protected areas still matter for the management of wildfires and adaptation to the impacts of climate change
Areas protected against human development will continue to play an important role as lands for managed wildfire and helping to reduce the points of fire ignition.
Today, humans are the primary driver of wildfire. Our presence increases the likelihood that fire will start in the first place with new homes, roads and electrical connections. By protecting areas from development, we hope to lessen that threat and provide key avenues for not engaging in fire suppression (i.e., using managed wildfire).
It is a hard point to make given the destruction and loss of life, but humans cause 80% of all wildfires. Not maliciously or wantonly, but simply our presence increases the likelihood of fire. Even more dramatically, 97% of all fires that burn human structures are started by people.
Climate change is a key driver for the size and scope of our wildfire challenge
While forest management has set the stage for these fires, a drier and hotter climate has accelerated that threat exponentially. All the accumulated vegetation is now drying out sooner and staying dry longer as we endure longer and longer wildfire seasons. That means addressing climate change by reducing fossil fuel use is a critical tool to reducing the long-term threat of wildfires.
Ecological forestry (including thinning) is an important tool
Unhealthy forests are significant threat to people. Continued megafires will have a serious impact on our ability to make the case for protecting more land. People will insist on more dramatic action like significantly increasing logging, even if that action turns out to be counterproductive to reducing the chance of megafires
Ecological forestry is a framework, outlined expertly by The Nature Conservancy, that combines thinning of small trees with prescribed and managed wildfire. It is an approach that when executed properly will reduce the fuel load in forests and restore ecosystem health particularly around threatened communities.
THIS DOES NOT MEAN WE SHOULD BUILD NEW ROADS or set up fire breaks in roadless areas in the name of fuel or fire-risk reduction. THIS DOES NOT MEAN LOGGING is a solution to our problems; in fact the logging of large trees only exacerbates the problem. It does mean that conservationists need to come to the table as constructive partners to restore the health of our forests and reduce catastrophic wildfires’ long-term threat to communities.
Environmental review of projects remains important because all sites are different
Most of the coverage around fires focuses on forested landscapes. And while some of these prescriptions can be helpful in places like oak woodlands, it is important to take local conditions into account. Many landscapes are now getting too much fire including chaparral and the desert. While these public engagement and review processes could be revised to increase ecologically beneficial practices, the role for public input and environmental review remains as important as ever.
Building homes in high fire risk areas increases the likelihood and destructive nature of wildfires
This isn’t our area of expertise or one that we work on, but we can’t leave this unsaid. We, as much as anyone, love to be in wild landscapes. However, it is really clear that the growth of population in areas of high fire risk makes fire more likely and more likely to result in tragedy.
It is also important to acknowledge how these dynamics overlap with California’s housing crisis as many seek places with a lower cost of living, which too often puts them in a high fire risk area.
As you can see, the threat of wildfires combines a lot of overlapping issues and we cannot deal with wildfires by only tackling one or the other. CalWild will continue to tackle these issues as they relate to California’s public lands.
Additionally, we will look to change the narrative around wildfire. For too long our narrative and in turn our actions have been about subjugation. We’ve tried to tame the wild processes of nature. We’ve put out fires to prevent the loss of valuable timber and protect communities. We’ve drained wetlands, lakes and other bodies of water for development. We’ve re-piped California, building enormous dams for large farms and cities. That approach cannot last forever. When it comes to fire, historian Stephen Pyne summarized it best, “we thought we were putting out fires, when in reality we were merely putting them off.”
California will always have wildfire. The loss of control we have seen this year shows us that our understanding, approach, and attitudes toward fire will have to change.
Please let me know your thoughts, comments, and questions by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.