Here in Northern California, the fire seasons have been getting worse. In my small city, Mill Valley, nestled in the middle of the redwood forest, we have always known that wildfire is not an “if” but a “when.” We all know people, including our own fire chief, who have lost their homes, and we know that we could be the next community to be lost.
California governor Gavin Newsom has declared that California’s latest fire season is the result of a climate emergency. “I’m a bit exhausted that we have to continue to debate this issue,” he said. President Trump, meantime, has scoffed, pointing to California’s failure in forest management. Ostensibly, this is an argument about what has caused the severity of the last several fire seasons. But, like many public debates, it’s not asking the right question, which in this case is: What should we do to protect loss of life and property from fire?
Wildfires start with an ignition event, and their severity is a function of three things: weather, topography, and fuel. The only one of these that we can influence is fuel.
Dry, hot weather with high winds can carry embers from the ignition event miles away, where smaller fires will ignite and propagate. In our mind’s eye, we picture a line of fire, advancing in a front of flames, consuming whatever is in its path. In reality, large fires are created from the convergence of many smaller fires that started from wind-driven embers.
Drawn to its natural beauty, 11.2 million people currently live in California’s wildland-urban interface (WUI). According to FEMA, the WUI is an area where human-made structures and infrastructure (e.g., cell towers, schools, water supply facilities) are in or adjacent to areas prone to wildfire. We no longer allow the natural fire cycles to clear brush and thin out forests to a level that the landscape can support, creating what forest ecologist Paul Hessburg calls an “epidemic of trees.”
What do we do about this? Millions of lives, billions of dollars in property, and whole ecosystems hang in the balance. Regardless of where you stand politically, the solutions are the same:
Vegetation management: Creating shaded fuel breaks, ridgetop fuel breaks, and defensible space around homes are strategic ways to prevent small fires from building into megafires.
Evacuation planning: Keeping primary and secondary evacuation routes clear of fuels and traffic obstructions is an annual task.
Early detection and alert systems: Wildfire cameras and smart-alert systems such as Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) sirens can ensure that people are able to escape to safety.
Neighborhood preparedness: A connected neighborhood is a resilient neighborhood. Knowing who might need help with maintaining their defensible space or with evacuation is key to improving the odds for the community.
It’s not a binary choice between climate change and forest management. Every community will need to decide what level of risk it is willing to tolerate. That translates directly into the tax dollars a particular community is willing to devote to the problem. My county recently passed a countywide parcel tax and created a Wildfire Prevention Agency, a joint-powers authority of 17 agencies charged with completing fire-prevention projects across jurisdictions. This will allow for more coordinated prevention work than any of us could do on our own.
Environmentalists vary in their tolerance for fuels clearing, controlled burns, and other fire-prevention techniques. A mega-wildfire equates to a catastrophic release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But preventing megafires might mean allowing for removal of trees that could be habitat for wildlife or allowing a wildfire to be managed so that it behaves like the natural-fire cycles of earlier days. Each community must find its own balance between immediate protection of the local ecology and longer-term prevention of wildfires that would have devastating effects on life, property, and nature.
The survival of high-fire-risk communities will depend on consistent devotion to the practices of vegetation management, evacuation planning, early detection and alerts, and neighborhood preparedness. Governor Newsom and the California legislature should leave the political game-playing aside when it comes to wildfires and instead back up wildfire-prevention efforts with the dollars that communities need to survive.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images