Some of the factors that shape the frequency and severity of wildfire in California, like drought, record high temperatures and strong winds are beyond our control and in many cases, exacerbated by a changing climate. Other factors, such as how we manage our fire-adapted conifer forests, where we build homes and how we prepare and protect our communities are within our control.
Source: The Nature Conservancy – California: Let’s Stop Making Wildfire History
Media and social media have been quick to blame California’s fires (including recent years and the present) on climate change. Social media instapundits proclaim that “only if we had done X on climate change” this would not have happened. Or if “Politician X was not in office” we would have solved climate change and this would have prevented the fires.
But that makes no sense – what could have been done on climate change, last year, or five years ago or ten years ago or even 20 years ago that would have effected forest fires this year? If we magically ended all fossil fuel usage 20 years ago, the forest fire risk this year would have been exactly the same.
While dealing with climate is an issue, it would have done nothing vis a vis current fires. Nor will spending trillions on climate change in the next 10 or 20 years resolve California’s fire problems – since spending trillions diverts enormous sums to climate change, it diverts money away from measures that would reduce California fire risk now.
We need to control what we can control – now. And that is what this Nature Conservancy report says.
Update: More here on how building codes evolved to create safer structures in earthquake prone areas, whereas we have not evolved building codes to make safer fire proof structures in fire prone areas. Fire is a natural part of the California ecosystem – and now, millions of people are living within areas that are dependent on fire.
The link above is to a report by the Nature Conservancy about what needs to be done.
While we can’t stop this problem overnight, there are two things we need to invest in immediately to better protect people and nature in the face of wildfire: forest restoration and fire resilient communities.
Science shows that forest restoration – controlled burns and ecological thinning to remove small trees and brush that ignite fire – delivers a one-two punch, reducing the risk of megafires in fire-adapted conifer forests, like the Sierra, while allowing fire to be safely reintroduced with many ecological benefits.
It is also critical that we make all communities in fire-prone regions more resilient by taking measures to make homes less flammable, improving response and evacuation plans, giving homeowners in risky places the option to move and building new communities in the right places.
But logic is not the hallmark of social media memes and politicians. There is a genuine likelihood that social media influencers and media hypsters will lead politicians to undertake actions that make the fire situation worse. Unfortunately.
On the plus side, so much acreage has burned in California in recent years (still a fraction of what had been burned historically), there is less land available for more big fires as their fuel loads are already wiped out. Consequently, regardless of what politicians do, the fire risk in California is sort of managing itself down to a lower level – as nature has always done. Even though nature may be the driver, we can be sure that politicians will claim full credit for fewer fires in the next decade! 🙂
While social media blames climate change, scientists are blaming – and have been blaming – inept forest management practices in California. And lack of fire proof building codes.
Mercury News (Silicon Valley): California fires: State, feds to agree to thin millions of acres of forests
Yet what’s driving these enormous fires is not sparks, but millions of acres of fuel: bone-dry trees and brush that haven’t burned in many years.
Before the Gold Rush in 1849, large parts of California burned every few decades. Lightning fires burned for months, and native tribes burned the land, clearing out dead vegetation. But for much of the past century, as the state’s population has built homes, towns and parks in rural areas, firefighters have extinguished the flames to save property and lives, allowing forests and other landscapes to become unnaturally dense.
As a result, fires now burn hotter and with more intensity. Climate change is increasing temperatures and drying out vegetation earlier. And the reckoning is here.
Stephens, the UC fire scientist, estimates that before the Gold Rush, roughly 4.5 million acres a year in California burned. By the 1950s and 1960s, that was down to about 250,000 acres a year. In recent years, it has approached 2 million acres a year.
Forests in the Sierra typically had about 40 trees per acre in the early 1800s, he said. Now they have 400 or more. Heavy brush and thick forests are burning now in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he noted.
“The scale of these fires in Santa Cruz, I think a lot of people thought weren’t possible,” he said. “It’s been 50 to 70 years since a lot of these places have burned. There’s got to be better conservation of these forests.”
It is convenient to blame climate change – but there is nothing we can do about that in the next decades. All we can do is adapt – and recognize that some past well-meaning environmental practices were wrong.