Want to Control the Fires? Start More, Experts Say

A home that was destroyed by the L.N.U. Lightning Complex fire.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As Californians brace for more bad news about what is already shaping up to be one of the state’s most intense fire seasons ever, and as we watch as firefighting capacity is stretched thin, I keep coming back to one question: What is California supposed to do?

This question isn’t new, and neither are many of the answers experts and policymakers routinely offer.

For one, they say, too many people are moving into the wildland-urban interface, the transitional zones between denser areas of human development and vegetation, which makes them more vulnerable to damage in the event of a wildfire. The solutions to that problem, however, are as complex as the countless reasons people are moving into such areas — not least of which is the state’s housing crisis, pushing Californians farther outside of big cities.

Which leaves what Daniel Swain, a California climate expert, states are essentially smaller-scale fixes.

Communities and homeowners themselves can better prepare by clearing fire breaks or using more fire-resistant building materials in higher-risk areas. Local officials can better plan to evacuate ahead of fast-moving blazes.  And leaders say utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric, whose infrequently maintained equipment sparked the state’s deadliest fire, must be held accountable.

At the end of the day, though, Mr. Swain said, California’s weather is expected to become even more extreme in coming years.  “The big picture solution is realizing there is going to be a lot more fire on the landscape,” he said.  And so, he added, “I don’t see how we get out of this without allowing a lot more to burn.”

In recent years, momentum has built for purposefully setting fires in certain areas to help thin vegetation and restore ecosystems that would naturally burn more frequently, if not for California’s policy of more than a century requiring that all fires be put out.  Before Euro-American settlement in California in the 1800s, about 1.5 million acres of forest burned each year on average — roughly the same amount that has burned so far this year.  That aggressive fire-suppression policy came at the expense of Native American tribes, who had for thousands of years harnessed fire to help ensure that the forests where they lived were healthy — that the plants that fed them were able to flourish, that fires didn’t burn too hot and destructively.  The decades of total fire suppression, coupled with the federal government’s moves to cut off access to much of that land, have been damaging to both Indigenous communities and forests.

So eventually, as The Guardian reported last year, the U.S. government started to gradually course-correct and now, some members of some of those same tribes are helping fire agencies and other groups learn how to use fire to manage forests.  But the challenge now is getting enough funding to use prescribed burns — which require lots of on-the-ground work and monitoring — and getting the green light to conduct prescribed burns in places where residents might be concerned about fires escaping or fouling the air.  Edward Smith, a forest ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, said that prescribed burns required figuring out when weather conditions are right to start a fire (not any time soon) and deciding which areas were at greatest risk of burning dangerously out of control during fire season.  “That’s your burn window,” he said.

Mr. Smith said that while prescribed burns often involved dripping fuel onto the ground, lightning strikes can be a helpful force for burning larger areas, especially with weather modeling and data technology that can help firefighters figure out how to prepare.  “We’re chipping away at a backlog from 150 years of suppression,” he said. “But we can get to a point where we’ll be able to keep up with the accumulation of fuel.”

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