A young friend asked me, what’s going on with all those fires in California? I think he wanted me to refute or agree with recent comments by the President.
I was pretty sure I knew the basic answer: California is a fire ecology, it always has fires. And with millions of people now living in fire prone areas, at least part of the “news” is simply due to fires and people being in the same places. (And, in this battle, my money is on “fire”.)
I also know that we have known for many decades that putting out wild fires is neither good for the forest, nor ultimately for people. No fire this year only means that there will be a bigger fire next year or the year after. And bear in mind that even non-forest areas of California are fire ecologies of one kind or another—practically all of California is a fire-prone area. (Again–this is a game that “fire” is going to win.)
My young friend and I also thought about the fact that it only takes one stupid or crazy person to start a fire, even if 10 million other people are very careful. Millions of people living in fire prone areas is pretty much guaranteed to mean something happens.
These are all things I learned in high school, but they are pretty general. What is really going on in California? And does the Tweeter-in-Chief (TOTUS?) have a point that better management could prevent or lessen these fires?
Ash Ngu and Sahil Chinoy report in the NYT this week on the historical substance of these questions . They have some great graphics, along with solid background.
Before European settlement, something like 1.5 million acres of forest burned per year in what is now California, and a given patch burned every 5-20 years or so. These fires clear out dead material and the forest regrows with new, healthy trees in the sunny, open areas.
In my lifetime, and since 1950, people have worked hard to suppress these small fires, so that less than a few per cent as many acres burned, and consequently, many areas go many decades without a fire. With no fires, the forest floor piles up with fuel.
In addition, some areas have see logging, which removes the largest, older trees, making way for dense growths of young trees. These are much more fire prone than the fewer, older trees.
Finally, people have indeed been moving into the forests, building millions of houses and buildings in fire prone areas. The article cites estimates that 11 million people currently live in “wildland-urban interface” areas. If nothing else, this makes it nearly impossible to do controlled burns to reduce the fire risk. It also, of course, increases the likelihood of human error igniting a fire.
It is also true that recent decades have been very dry, and forests have been dying, at least in part due to human activities such as pollution and habitat change. Given the long history of droughts and related die-offs, it’s hard to parse out human contributions from natural cycles, but massive human activities can’t be helping the forests very much, and probably are accelerating trends.
So is there any kind of sensible management that could actually control this situation, as implied by DJT? To date, the main approach has been controlled burns, which, in principle, mimic the natural biology of the area. Of course, these are expensive and tricky to get right, and deeply unpopular (not least with billionaire property developers who want the some to only blow over poor people.)
The “interface” can, of course, be done better, keeping areas near buildings clear of fuel, and making buildings fire resistant. That takes money, planning, and cooperation, all of which are hard to make happen (not least because billionaire property developers resist “big government” and the “nanny state” interfering with profits).
It probably would be a good idea to reduce logging and housing developments in wild areas, but that’s certainly not the policy of the current administration in Washington.
So, sure, there is room for improvement in a lot of ways. But a lot of the challenge isn’t that we don’t know what the problem is, it’s that we simply don’t have the political ability to implement it.
Think about it: the best solution would be to pull back from the forests, and burn a lot of small areas every year. Basically, continuous small fires all the time, instead of sudden gigantic fires.
No one really wants that, especially said billionaire property developers.
On the other hand, Mother Nature will ultimately “fix” the problem. Fire will happen. If humans put off the fire for years or decades, eventually, the fire will overcome human defenses.
So there is a more complete and up to data answer. It’s nice to know that what I was taught was basically correct.
- Ash Ngu and Sahil Chinoy (2018) To Help Prevent the Next Big Wildfire, Let the Forest Burn The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/29/opinion/sunday/california-wildfires-forest-management.html