The West Coast fire season still has months to run, but it’s already one for the record books. Some 3.3 million acres have burned in California, and another 1 million in Oregon. In some cases, separate fires have combined into fire “complexes,” or “megafires.” At least 35 people have died, with others still unaccounted for. Media reports have almost all focused on a single explanation. “California’s climate apocalypse,” read the banner headline on the Los Angeles Times’s September 13 edition. The New York Times, CNN, NPR, and other outlets used similar doomsday language in linking the fires to climate change. Politicians echoed them. “We’re in a CLIMATE CRISIS,” California Governor Gavin Newsom tweeted on September 11.
The emphasis on climate is not incorrect. Higher average temperatures are linked to longer fire seasons, and hotter, dryer conditions do appear to lead to larger fires. It is reasonable to assume that rising temperatures increase the risks of fire in Western landscapes. Nonetheless, focusing on climate as the all-purpose explanation for wildfires is a dangerous oversimplification. In truth, the factors that cause large Western fires are complex. Climate is one. The impact of humans on the ground is another. People play a large role not only in igniting wildfires, but also in altering the conditions through which fires move and grow.
The 14,000-acre El Dorado fire still burning in Southern California’s San Bernardino County was triggered by a pyrotechnic device at an outdoor “gender reveal party.” In recent days, suspects have been arrested for allegedly setting wildfires in four incidents in California and Oregon. Sparks from power lines are an alarmingly common source of wildfires, including the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 86 people, mostly in the town of Paradise, California. In addition, decades of aggressive fire suppression have left enormous “fuel loads” in West Coast forests. Most forestry experts believe that this accumulation of flammable woody debris is a key factor driving bigger, more intense fires. Finally, despite the risks, people keep moving into wildfire country. The rapid growth of population and infrastructure in semi-wild regions means that even routine fires now threaten more lives and cause more economic damage.
For many climate activists—and a preponderance of mainstream journalists—disasters like wildfires and hurricanes are often seen as teachable moments. Activists hope that if the public can be convinced to see climate change as a here-and-now disaster—rather than as some distant threat—perhaps voters will be more willing to support pro-climate policies. That’s an understandable motive but a questionable strategy. Scientists who put advocacy ahead of objectivity risk undermining both the quality of their research and their own credibility. Journalists who take this route tend to oversimplify complex causes, and lapse into an “End Times” narrative that leaves readers feeling powerless.
It’s impossible to say whether a particular hurricane or single fire season was caused by climate change. Establishing the connection between climate and such widely variable events requires a solid baseline of data accumulated over many decades. The current West Coast fire season really is unprecedented—at least in terms of the recent past—but California’s 2019 season was relatively light, with only about 280,000 acres burned. Should that below-average fire season be cited as evidence that fears of climate change are exaggerated? Of course not. Outliers in either direction should be added to the data set, not seized on as “the new normal.” But overheated rhetoric—or, for that matter, blanket rejections of climate data—make judicious assessments of climate risks impossible. As writer Gregg Easterbrook recently noted on Twitter, today’s partisan environment “demands all issues be reduced to doomsday or denial.”
This is a nuanced point that demands clarity. I believe that climate change is a significant risk. And I think it’s worth hedging against that risk, even if some aspects of the science aren’t certain, and some worst-case scenarios might be overblown. I support using the best available technologies to reduce carbon emissions in ways that don’t hamstring the economy. That’s why, for example, I oppose California’s current plan to shutter the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, the state’s largest single source of carbon-free electricity. But the biggest question facing West Coast policymakers right now is not figuring out exactly how carbon emissions influence wildfires. The real question is, what tools are available today to bring down wildfire risks? Even if we assume climate models are accurate—and we also assume global carbon emissions can be cut fast enough to reach the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s current target—it would still take decades for today’s gradual temperature increases to halt. In the meantime, a range of factors—aside from climate—are making wildfires more deadly and more expensive.
When scientists, the press, and policymakers respond to every wildfire by talking almost exclusively about climate, those other aspects of fire policy get neglected. For example, in 2016, California’s then-governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill requiring better oversight of power lines in high-fire-risk areas. One of the bill’s sponsors, State Senator John Moorlach, a Republican who represents Laguna Beach, later complained in a blog post that Governor Brown “relied on a weak excuse, saying the real issue is climate change.” (The Brown administration maintained that the oversight improvements the bill sought were already underway.) Two years later, sparks from a deteriorating PG&E power line set off the devastating Camp Fire blaze, the deadliest and most expensive wildfire in California history. Facing lawsuits charging that the company mismanaging its power lines, PG&E partially blamed the fire on climate change.
“If you think the only way to stop these fires is by reducing climate change then you are basically saying you are not going to be able to stop the fires,” the environmental contrarian Michael Shellenberger said in a recent online video. “That’s disempowering and wrong.” Shellenberger argues that the West would be facing megafires even if climate change was not happening. Moreover, he claims, properly managed forests would be better able to cope with the stresses of rising temperatures. More than half a century of forest-management experience supports that conclusion.
Forestry experts began warning about the dangers of over-aggressive fire suppression in the mid twentieth century. In a forest that burns regularly, fires tend to lick through the underbrush, mostly consuming fallen deadwood and litter. Healthy trees survive such routine burns, and forest ecosystems emerge from them healthier. But if every fire is snuffed out at birth, combustible materials build up. When fires move through these fuel-rich environments they become hotter and more destructive, reaching up into the living crowns of the trees and scorching the life out of forest soils.
The solution to this dilemma is carefully controlled “prescribed burns.” I can remember seeing such controlled burns in Yosemite National Park in the early 1980s. They would smolder for days consuming pine needles and deadwood. But, while prescribed burns are widely used today in the southeastern U.S., they were never deployed on a sufficient scale in the West. One obstacle was Clinton administration policies that aimed to restore Western forests to “pre-settlement” conditions. The goal was to limit logging and to restrict road use on federal lands in order to keep forests as pristine as possible. “To accept this idea you have to believe pre-settlement forests were ‘naturally functioning ecosystems’ untouched by human hands,” noted forest researcher Bob Zybach in 1994. “The fact is, people have been altering the character of this region’s forests for at least 11,000 years.”
Native peoples used fire actively to manage grasslands and forests. (Some still do.) As a result, Zybach’s research showed, Western woodlands were “virtually free of the underbrush and coarse woody debris that has been commonplace in forests for most of this century.” And, of course, prior to the twentieth century, there was no way to put out large conflagrations naturally sparked by lightning. Researchers estimate that, prior to the arrival of Europeans, California forests burned at a rate of between 4.4 and nearly 12 million acres a year. In a fascinating Pro Publica investigation, veteran forest scientists expressed dismay that prescribed burns are so rarely used today as a tool of forest management. “[It’s] horrible to see this happening when the science is so clear and has been for years,” said Tim Ingalsbee, founder of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. “Every year I warn people: Disaster’s coming.”
For Ingalsbee and other foresters, this year’s epic fire season is the fuel-driven catastrophe they have long feared. Some foresters argue that increased fuels, not higher temperatures alone, are the primary reason we’re seeing bigger fires today. But warming temperatures exacerbate that risk, making it all the more urgent to attack the problem. “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load,” Ingalsbee said. It will be a big job. In recent years, California has burned only 13,000 acres a year. One recent study concluded the state would need to burn some 20 million acres overall in order to bring its forest back into stable condition.
As more Western residents leave cities for homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), it becomes harder to conduct prescribed burns. Residents complain, and the state’s air quality rules often shut down planned burning operations. Meanwhile, unplanned fires are encountering growing numbers of people and structures in their paths. That threat to lives and property puts pressure on firefighters to extinguish blazes that might otherwise roll harmlessly—in fact, helpfully—through uninhabited forests. And when fires do reach settled areas, the costs become catastrophic. Disaster researchers call this phenomenon the expanding bull’s-eye effect: even if the rate of fires stays the same, costs go up as people move in.
California and other western states have worked themselves into a vicious cycle: their forests are primed for disastrous fires, but increasing populations make it harder to conduct prescribed burns. The risks and potential costs go up every year. What can be done? One step would be to rethink how people live in the wildland-urban interface. Instead of focusing just on fire prevention, policymakers should plan for better fire resilience: helping communities and residents survive and recover from the fires that, sooner or later, are bound to arrive.
Another step would be to stop encouraging population growth in the most dangerous regions. Restrictive zoning in California’s cities has driven housing prices through the roof, while homes in the WUI are usually more affordable, especially for retirees. Reforming the state’s anti-development urban zoning rules would ease the pressure pushing residents into the fire zones. The promise of aggressive fire protection is also a subtle subsidy encouraging more development in these regions. If prospective homeowners knew they were likely to bear the true costs of fire risk, they might plan differently.
Right now, insurance companies are sending that message in the form of higher rates and cancelled policies for homeowners in the riskiest areas. Predictably, California regulators and some lawmakers want to force insurers to keep rates artificially low for WUI residents. That would be a mistake. Effectively subsidizing insurance in fire zones would only lead to more risky development and bigger disasters down the road. Instead, insurance companies can encourage their customers to build more fire-resistant homes and maintain “defensible space” around them. Just as most ancient redwoods can survive passing fires, a properly built home surrounded by a non-flammable zone should be able to withstand typical wildfires.
Fire has been a routine event in West Coast terrain since prehistoric times. Today’s megafires are the alarming but predictable result of decades of poor forest management and WUI development. Climate change makes these problems worse, but it didn’t cause them. And reducing carbon emissions, while a good long-term goal, won’t reduce these risks any time soon. Implementing effective fire policies in the West will require real political will on the statewide level. Communities and even individual homeowners can also take steps to improve their fire resilience. But when Governor Newsom and other leaders imply that only a global solution to carbon emissions can reduce fires, they undermine these efforts. A less histrionic approach would pursue affordable reductions in CO2 emissions, while also applying the best current tools to reduce the impact of inevitable wildfires.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images