Western Fires

Nov. 18, 2018

What Trump gets wrong about wildfires, by a fire scientist

By Matthew Hurteau, associate professor in the department of biology at the University of New Mexico

In a tweet, Trump blamed “poor forest management” in California for the devastating conflagrations currently burning in the state, and he threatened to withhold federal aid as if in punishment for this negligence. Trump probably has in mind how a century of putting out wildfires in the American west has caused forests to grow dense with trees, making large, hot fires more common than they once were. This is not the predominant cause, however, of the fires currently making the news. To comprehend what is currently taking place in California, you have to comprehend how it has historically burned – and the vast changes now occurring across the landscape.

Fire is an integral part of California ecosystems because it consumes dead vegetation, creates space for new plant growth, and helps limit the density of vegetation. It affects almost every vegetated part of the state, from the conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the oak woodlands lower down and, in the valleys, the grasslands and chaparral.

The severity of these fires is moderated by rain and snowfall. California’s Mediterranean climate means that the state receives heavy precipitation for only a few short months in the winter, and this is all that the vegetation has to tide it over until the winter storms begin the next year. As the temperature increases in spring and summer and plants use up the water stored in the soil, the amount of water held in plants decreases, making them more flammable. Similar to fire wood, the drier it is, the easier it burns.

Climate change is causing warmer temperatures, which dry out vegetation more. It is also causing winter precipitation to fall over a shorter period and the length of the fire season is increasing. Vegetation in California is increasingly primed for fire.

Seeing as fire is an important natural process in many of California’s ecosystems, from grasslands to forests, it makes sense that in many of these ecosystems, the most effective tool for managing the risks to society from wildfire is more fire. Prescribed fires, which are planned fires lit by managers, are conducted during much more benign weather than the warm, dry and windy conditions that are driving the current flames. Prescribed fires help reduce the buildup of vegetation and break up the continuity of these fuels across the landscape. Extreme weather will continue to occur, but at least when vegetation is more variable, it acts as an impediment to fires spreading rapidly.

Brian Patrick Green

Balancing human and environmental well-being is a major ethical concern when it comes to wildfire management, and one of the major variables that humans can control is how much fuel is in any particular area. Through controlled burns, thinning trees, logging, grazing, controlling the locations of housing developments, and so on, wildfire risks can be reduced, though usually not eliminated (unless the land is completely stripped). While people may not like the idea of actively managing forests to remove trees and brush, burning land, and even grazing goats or other animals to strip away vegetation, if the alternative is a calamitous fire that kills many people and destroys thousands of homes, on balance, the lesser damage of the “managing option” may be well worth it. This is a decision that no one alone can make; it should be made as a community, between all involved parties: residents, government, private interests, firefighters, landowners, environmentalists, etc.

All of our forest land management practices may not be enough when the climate itself is working against us. California’s wildlands have grown under the conditions of decades past, when rain and humidity were more reliable, and the world was less warm. Now that climate disruption is becoming a more serious threat, it is time to react with more resolve: Normal firefighting practices are no longer good enough. Sometimes anticipatory actions are the only actions to be done, short of fleeing when a fire actually occurs. There are no tools to fight fires that grow as fast as those in recent years. We can reduce fuel loads now, and prepare in other ways (e.g. fire-resistant construction, hiring more firefighters, improving fire roads and escape routes, etc.).  But once a fire begins, the situation may remain out of control for days. Climate change is going to worsen fire conditions in the coming years, not improve them, so this is only the beginning. What few options we have we should utilize to the fullest, including attempting to reverse climate change as a long-term goal.