The 2020 California wildfire season has been the largest on record with nearly 8,000 individual fires. As of September 26, nearly 5 million acres have burned, 26 people have died with an additional 37 suffering injuries, and over 6,000 buildings have been destroyed totaling damages well past $1 billion.
A typical wildfire season in California runs from July to November when hot winds, dryness, and thunderstorms are the norm. This year brought with it the driest January and February months in California’s history. Severe drought contributed to a mass tree die off that turned the state into a virtual tinderbox. Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on March 22 in anticipation that these conditions could result in dangerous fires. Unfortunately, those worries turned out to be warranted.
It has become abundantly clear than human driven climate change has exacerbated the wildfire seasons in recent years. A study conducted in 2019 by researchers from Columbia University found that the severity of fires has increased fivefold since the 1970s. Warming temperatures have resulted in a drying of fuel sources such as brush and trees, like the aforementioned die off this spring. The new abundance of fuel sources has directly contributed to the devastating and wide sweeping nature of summer and fall wildfires in the last 3 years.
Changes in climate are not the only factor that has led to the hellish landscape on the West Coast – a lack of change in fire management policy is possibly a bigger accelerant. One method for reducing the size and damage of wildfires is to do controlled burns to reduce the amount of dry fuel safely. Current policy employs too much fire suppression in low risk areas, which causes fuel to build and build until a single spark ignites and now has unfettered access to spread.
Prior to the Gold Rush era of the 1850s into prehistory, scientists believe that anywhere from 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned annually in California. The indigenous people participated in controlled burns and had a society that embraced the benefits that fires bring to nature. Moving past the 1850s the culture around wildfires on the West Coast changed and like many expansionist ideologies, a militant mindset was instilled in fighting fires.
Less and less land has burned into the modern era. A detailed report by ProPublica explains the failures of the current culture and policy making surrounding wildfires. Between 1982 and 1998, land managers burned around 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, just 13,000 acres were burned. In a report published in February 2020, Nature Sustainability concluded that 20 million acres would need to be burned to return things to a natural balance.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) is the primary actor responsible for tracking and managing fires in the state of California. In 2017-18, they had a budget of $773 million. It’s perhaps sickening to say, but wildfires are profitable. Expensive planes and helicopters for dropping fire retardant, private firms contracted to provide crews and infrastructure to suppress the fires, and some of the highest salaries for full time Cal Fire firefighters are just a few of the funding concerns.
There is also bureaucratic red tape preventing many controlled burns from taking place. All planned burns have to comply with environmental regulations. The Clean Air Act is a wonderful thing in regard to reducing human-caused emissions, but it serves as an impediment to life-saving controlled burns. CARB, the state board responsible for enforcing those rules has enacted reform after the 2017 and 2018 record breaking wildfire seasons to loosen restrictions on planned burns. It may be too little too late, however, now that the state is once again faced with infernal devastation.
An obstacle that comes up with many environmental issues is so-called NIMBY arguments – not in my backyard. Necessary infrastructure is often delayed because communities don’t want them in their area, and in the case of prescribed-burns people don’t want smoke to blow into their town. There is, however, far less smoke caused by a controlled burn than what the West Coast is now experiencing. For almost an entire month, areas of California have been deemed unsafe to breath in. Oregon and Washington are even worse off on the air quality index and smoke has made it to the East Coast and parts of Europe.
In the face of growing destruction, Governor Newsom and the U.S. Forest Service chief have signed a memorandum of understanding to say that California needs to do more prescribed burnings. Advocates, scientists, and professionals in the field have been lobbying for decades to have more burns. Tim Ingalsbee, a former firefighter with a PhD in environmental sociology, started Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE) in 2005. 15 years of lobbying to prevent a disaster like is currently taking place left him and many others uncertain of the value this memorandum actually holds.
The memorandum states that “California’s forests naturally adapted to low-intensity fire, nature’s preferred management tool, but Gold Rush-era clearcutting followed by a wholesale policy of fire suppression resulted in the overly dense, ailing forests that dominate the landscape today.” Additionally, it claims that they will “use science to inform and prioritize stewardship decisions.”
At the very least, the memorandum sets up a foundation for preventing tragedies moving forward. If the policy makers don’t follow through with the commitment, the memorandum can be a way to hold their feet to the fire politically, since they are now on record stating they understand what is wrong with current fire prevention standards.
There is no easy path forward, but in a time of unprecedented divisiveness in the U.S. one thing all citizens can agree on is that the 2020 wildfires are a tragedy and that working together to stop fires of this scale is in everyone’s best interest.