California May Need More Fire to Fix its Wildfire Problem

Firefighter Charles VeaVea pours flames from a drip torch in Kings Canyon National Park, California. The recommended burn is known as among the finest ways to avoid the kind of catastrophic wildfires that have become common, but its use falls woefully less than goals in the West.
Before settlers populated the spot in the 1800s, about 5 to 12% of the land that now accocunts for the Golden State caught fire each year – more than has burned up to now in 2020, the most destructive year in modern history. A number of the historic fires were caused by lightning among others were established by Native Americans as a land-management tool, nevertheless they mostly burned with low intensity and touched much of their state with great regularity.

But after greater than a century of aggressive fire suppression, California’s vegetation is continuing to grow much denser than the fire-adapted ecosystem had evolved to take care of. Competition for water left forests vulnerable to drought and bark beetles, killing more than 150 million trees in their state.

Even as leaders rethink the role of fire, development throughout their state has made it a lot more difficult to let things burn.

“With the amount of houses and the quantity of folks we’ve got, there are a few places where you’re not going to get fire on those landscapes,” said Malcolm North, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist. “We’re in circumstances with 40 million people. We’ll do not have fire on a scale we used to have historically.”

But as climate change brings hotter, drier conditions, the tinderbox has ignited. Unlike the historic fires that thinned out vegetation and left thriving meadows in their wake, the megafires now engulfing the state ravage the landscape and send plumes of smoke over the continent.

“The war against fire must end,” said Craig Thomas, founder of the Fire Restoration Group, which advocates for more controlled burns to revive healthy forests preventing large, destructive fires. “I’m running out of words to talk about what we have to do. We have been telling the storyline for a long time.”

The longstanding default position of suppressing every fire has generated problems throughout the West, and tribes in many states will work to restore traditional burning practices. But nowhere is the problem more evident than California, which Thomas referred to as “one of the most naturally flammable landscapes on the planet.”

Bitter fights over how to control forests have been ongoing for many years on Capitol Hill and in the us, especially since the debate over how much logging should be allowed often goes together with the discussion over recommended fires.

Amid the major fire season in California’s history, many leaders by any means levels agree that prescribed fire needs to play a larger role in the state’s wildfire strategy. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to treat 1 million acres annually across both jurisdictions (57% of California’s forest land is under federal control), including manipulated burns and timber harvests.

But many experts say the state requires a massive scale-up in its “good fire” strategy to avert the destructive wildfires that are happening with increasing regularity.

Some experts are calling for the state to light small fires not only in the spring and fall, the original “shoulder season” before and after fire season, however in the winter too.

“With the climate changing, around having drier winters, we’re going to have more opportunities for low-risk approved burning,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser for the University of California extension office.

Setting more managed burns won’t be considered a panacea to California’s wildfire crisis. Lots of the state’s most destructive fires have happened on shrubby chaparral landscapes, not forests.

“Burning chaparral doesn’t can you any good,” North said. “You eliminate the grass and shrubs, and six months later you’re back where you started.”

Keeping non-forested areas safe, he said, requires limiting development, hardening existing homes and reducing human-caused ignitions.

And scaling up controlled fire to the levels some experts are calling for won’t be easy. It could require state and federal agencies to rethink the way they deploy personnel and resources. It might require federal lawmakers to rethink pollution standards. And state residents would need to get much more used to coping with smoke.

Even a robust fire-prevention strategy will be fighting an uphill battle contrary to the unfortunate circumstances caused by climate change. Addressing forest health without reducing carbon emissions, experts say, won’t solve the long-term problem.

California’s backlog of fire prevention work, including recommended burns, will come with a hefty price.

“The number is bigger than anything we have available to spend,” said state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat who in 2018 authored a bill to permit for more managed burns in their state. “It’s in the billions, multi-billions. It’s money that isn’t there right now.”

Their state has increased its approved burning since Jackson’s bill passed. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, plans to burn 30,000 acres this fiscal year, largely together with private landowners. That’s up from 25,000 this past year, and their state hopes to eventually scale up to 50,000. But Jackson pointed out the state can only just accomplish that much, as most of its forests are possessed by the government.

While Jackson called on the government to consider more responsibility for prevention work, a U.S. Forest Service fire expert told Stateline that that they had been banned from answering questions about the agency’s approach, likely because of the ongoing fire disaster in the state and the upcoming election.

North said the agency has set an objective of burning 500,000 acres of federal forests in the Sierra Nevada range, but it’s nowhere near to achieving that.

“Congress won’t dole out money to attempt,” he said. “This is merely not really a priority. We must produce a way of finding a revenue stream for fire to be placed from the landscape.”

The federal government’s appetite for funding approved fire could soon be placed to the test. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, released an idea Thursday that would give federal agencies $600 million annually to light managed burns on federal, state and private land. It faces a competing bill that seeks to remove vegetation by accelerating forestry projects – a strategy opposed by many conservation organizations.

Not everyone believes approved fire is the principal solution.

“Our ability to improve landscape-scale patterns of fire is not a lot of,” said Bryant Baker, conservation director at Los Padres ForestWatch, an environmental group on California’s Central Coast. “There is absolutely no way to increase approved fire on the landscape where suddenly we won’t have large fires anymore.”

Baker noted that many of the recently-burned lands aren’t in forested areas and said that trying to regulate the scale and kind of fire on the landscape is a futile exercise. Wish wildfire burns a big variety of acres doesn’t mean they have ravaged the landscape, he said, and even high-severity fires can play an important role using ecosystems. Climate change could make wildfires even harder to avoid, and he urged leaders to concentrate on making homes and neighborhoods more resilient rather than aiming to limit the spread of wildfire through land management.

“Climate change will worsen and we will see more and more fire, and these large fires aren’t heading anywhere because we crank up vegetation management,” he said. “Which false assumption that prescribed fire would prevent the fires we saw this year, which occurred under extreme conditions – heat waves, lightning storms, wind storms.”

But other experts think the existing approved burn efforts – from their state to federal level – still need to scale up. Thomas wants their state to burn 1 million acres annually, a figure other experts likewise have suggested. The existing state total of controlled burns every year across all lands is nearer to 125,000 acres. Complaints about the trouble, he said, are shortsighted.

“It’s so insane if you ask me to think about how exactly open the bank account is of these megafire events and exactly how little – pennies in a tin can – that we placed into pre-suppression work,” Thomas said.

Scaling up controlled burns isn’t only a matter of spending additional money. Successful burns require an alignment of ideal moisture levels in vegetation, proper climate, staff and equipment. And that’s a tricky balance. To begin with, the fire experts had a need to manage a large recommended fire could be called away anytime to fight a wildfire.

From an quality of air perspective, spring is the best time to burn, said Jason Branz, an air pollution specialist at the California Air Resources Board, area of the state Environmental Protection Agency.

“We like to encourage burning in the spring, when the atmosphere can more readily handle smoke,” Branz said. “But that doesn’t align with the fuels being dry enough to burn. If they’re too wet, they either don’t burn, or they produce too much smoke.”

Local Air Districts have the ultimate say on whether a burn, whether on state or federal land, can move forward on a given day, but they’re guided by the daily burn decision advisories published by the California Air Resources Board. Amy MacPherson, a public information officer who specializes in prescribed fire and wildfires for the agency, said the warmer, drier climate has allowed to get more burning in the wintertime. And while air regulators have a duty to minimize the smoke hazards from approved fires, she said, they acknowledge that some sacrifices might need to be made to avert worse disasters.

Before, some health groups including the American Lung Association have opposed approved fires due to quality of air issues.

“Everyone recognizes that prescribed fire can produce smoke,” MacPherson said. “But smoke you can arrange for and is also short-lived is normally preferable to what we’re seeing right now with these out-of-control wildfires. We’re very supportive of efforts to boost the pace and scale of recommended fire in California.”

Christine McMorrow, a Cal Fire spokesperson, said the agency is dealing with air regulators to make better allowances for managed burns. Residents sometimes oppose such fires because of smoke, however they may need to learn to live with that to avert worse disasters.

“The worst recommended fire smoke impacts are nothing in comparison to what we’re experiencing right now,” McMorrow said. “How do we start that burn window to where we can burn on many of these days where we presently cannot?”

But approved burns are regulated federally as a human-caused source of emissions, said Rebecca Miller, a doctoral prospect at Stanford University who researches wildfire protection and prevention policy. Which means smoke from approved burns is included in statewide emissions calculations, but wildfires aren’t.

“It’s like we’re fining ourselves for doing the thing that would ultimately decrease the sort of smoke that we’d have in the future,” she said.

It’s up to the federal government to improve those pollution regulations, said Matt Hurteau, a co-employee professor at the University of New Mexico who studies how climate change influences forests.

State air quality regulators’ hands are tied, Hurteau said. “They’re giving an answer to federal regulations, and the way ignition source is treated.”

Rethinking Needs
With the existing workforce, Quinn-Davidson said, late fall can be a better time to create a approved burn, because then wildland firefighting is winding down, but federal and state fire crews are still around.

“Once those seasonal crews are gone, and we get into the vacation season, and we enter the training season – and basically nobody considers fire for half a year,” Quinn-Davidson said.

Setting more approved fires could need a larger, year-round workforce, as opposed to the seasonal teams which report in the summertime as large fires erupt. Thomas recognized which will be an expensive proposition, but still far less expensive than what their state is now shelling out for suppression.

Some prescribed fire experts in Northern California, where Quinn-Davidson lives and works, worry that the state’s increasingly arid climate and lengthening fire season will make it harder to create burns.

“The risks to do recommended fire on what used to be the ‘shoulder seasons’ is higher,” said Nick Goulette, executive director of the Watershed Center in Hayfork, California.

Quinn-Davidson argues instead that property owners, businesses and state and local agencies need to believe beyond the traditional shoulder seasons. Which will take more personnel – whether they’re state and federal employees or local volunteer firefighters – capable of managing controlled burns at other times of year.

“We don’t have a lot of capacity to do the proactive just work at the times it might actually be achieved,” she said.

The burns historically set by California’s tribes did more than just prevent wildfires. They opened grazing areas for game animals and created conditions for important resources to be replenished. Ron Goode, chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe, has led many approved burns in Central California, coordinating with other tribes. He said their state must give more attention to restoring healthy ecosystems, rather than focusing only on fire suppression.

That could include burning areas more often but with lower intensity, as well as rethinking the densely planted, single-species plantations used in timber production, that are shown to burn up more severely than natural forests. Goode also noted that liability issues can limit burning. Private landowners cautious with Cal Fire’s burning practices face substantial risk if they light their own fire then one goes wrong.

“Most sane ranchers are looking at that and heading, ‘I don’t think so,’” he said. “‘Why would I have a risk like this? On the other hand, I sure don’t want Cal Fire burning for me. They don’t learn how to burn properly and manage the land.’”

Living with Fire
California wouldn’t be the tinderbox it is today if more fires had been permitted to run their course of course, if climate change hadn’t allowed insect infestations and even more drought. On remote federal lands, some fires are now being monitored and permitted to burn rather than immediately suppressed. But on lands overseen by Cal Fire, the agency says it doesn’t have that option.

“The majority of the state responsibility area lands, it’s private property and which means that we have homes and people’s livelihood at stake,” McMorrow said. “Our key mission is to safeguard lives, property and natural resources – for the reason that order.”

People who live in fire-prone areas, understandably, want fires near them extinguished at the earliest opportunity. As a forester, Goulette knows the fire is an all natural part of California’s ecosystems, but he said that even he – like everybody else in his community – worries when a new wildfire ignites nearby.

“When it’s in the backyard, it’ll just scare you,” he said. “Since it is a matter of life and death, which is a matter of whether your home survives, or it doesn’t.”

Lots of the fire-prone areas that historically burned in California are actually cities and towns. Their state has practically 800,000 homes that face moderate to extreme risk from fire danger, a 2019 report found. Letting fires burn in places where the ecosystem demands it isn’t always possible anymore.

“A whole lot of places that used to own regular fire are now called ‘Sacramento,’ ‘San Francisco’ and ‘Fresno,’” Thomas said.

While it’s unclear the way the state’s approach changes in the a long time, everyone agrees that coping with fire – whether it’s a wildfire or a burn that’s intentionally place – is likely to be a major shift for everyone in the state.

“That is a no-win situation, and no matter what we do, we will be confronting these wildfires,” said Jackson, their state senator. “If we don’t start addressing this, we’re going to lose this battle and we will lose this war.”