Suddenly, everyone on the Internet purports to be an expert in forest management. Various memes, rants, and ill-advised presidential opinions are seeking a bogeyman to blame for the deadly wildfires in California. This is my attempt to bring something rational to that conversation.
The Theory: Controlled Burns Could Have Prevented the Fires
As far as crackpot conspiracy theories go, this one actually holds water. In forests, it’s not big, mature trees that contribute to wildfire, it’s brush and debris—and yes, sometimes even dry leaves. Controlled burns are an effective tool for reducing these fuel loads.
The Reality: You Can’t Burn Everything
There are a couple of big, obvious problems with using controlled burns for fire prevention:
- They’re expensive;
- They’re vastly limited in area.
The U.S. Forest Service is going broke trying to fight fires right now. And when the firefighting budget is blown, extra money is drawn from the fire prevention budget. I’m sure you can see the problem: as the Forest Service spends more money fighting fires, it has less money to spend preventing them. This is clearly unsustainable.
Yet there does not appear to be political will in Washington to fix this issue. The omnibus spending bill that was signed into law earlier this year with much fanfare will begin increasing the Forest Service’s firefighting budget by $100 million annually in 2020. Trouble is, the Forest Service currently spends $2.5 billion fighting fires each year—$100 million is a drop in that bucket. Heck, it spends $390 million a year doing removal of hazardous fuels, and even that amount has not been shown to have a demonstrable effect on reducing the frequency or severity of fires.
The Forest Service manages 190 million acres of land across the country. Yet controlled burns are carried out manually, on an acre-by-acre basis. In order to perform them safely, controlled burns need to be done during the rainy season, when only the very dry wood that really fuels wildfires will catch. And they require extensive fire breaks in order to control the intentional blaze, which means firefighters have to manually go into the area and cut through the brush. That’s incredibly labor intensive and, adding insult to injury, burns must be repeated every ten years because brush grows back. So controlled burns have to be targeted at specific high-risk areas only. That’s a problem, because in California alone right now, an area the size of Maryland is in need of controlled burning. No one has the resources to do that.
The Theory: “Radical” Environmentalists Get in the Way of Forest Management
Al Gore teamed up with notoriously liberal spotted owls and they’re intentionally making our forests more fire-prone by preventing logging. I read about it in Hillary’s emails.
The Reality: Everyone Benefits from More Resilient Forests
As I covered extensively in this article, environmental litigators and logging companies are actually working together to create new, sustainable logging practices that are both profitable and healthy for our forests. The claim that the kind of logging or hazardous-fuels reduction that could prevent fires is being held up in court for environmental reasons simply isn’t true.
The Theory: Fire Is a Natural Part of Our Environment
It is! It’s estimated that before 1800, about 7,000 square miles of California burned annually, due both to natural causes and fires set by Native Americans. During last year’s record-setting fire season, only 1,500 square miles burned.
The Reality: Lots of People Live Here Now
In the 13 Western states, over 60 percent of homes built since 1990 have been built in something called the wildland-urban interface. Read: places prone to wildfire. The total value of those homes exceeds $500 billion.
Simply standing by while those homes and communities burn down, and those lives are lost, is not possible—fires must be fought. As wildfires worsen, we do need an ecosystem-wide reconsideration of how and where we build and live, so that we can better coexist with the natural function of these environments. Doing that will be really hard, really expensive, and really time consuming. In California alone, adapting to climate-change-worsened wildfire could be 120 times more difficult than adapting to sea level rise, according to research I wrote about last year.
The Theory: More Logging Would Prevent Wildfires
Hey, it’s logical. Fewer trees means there is less fuel to burn.
The Reality: Logging Only Helps Next to Homes
For logging to help make our forests more fire-resistant, all the debris and brush that’s left behind after trees are removed must also be removed. That’s challenging and expensive, as detailed above. And even then, logging hasn't been shown to actually reduce instances or severity of fire in our forests.
The only areas where logging has been scientifically shown to help with wildfires is immediately adjacent to homes and other buildings. Removing fuel sources from these areas can help prevent wind-driven embers from spreading to structures.
The Theory: This Is Caused by Anything but Climate Change
Wherein we all avoid talking about the elephant in the room.
The Reality: A Hotter Planet Equals Drier Fuel
My future mother-in-law has a beautiful cabin up in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s been in the family since the 1920s, but I fear it won’t be around much longer. The majority of the huge, old-growth redwoods (along with over 100 million other trees in the state) that have always surrounded it have been killed either by drought or by invasive bark beetles. While that’s happened, heavy winter precipitation has caused booms in brush growth, which then dies out in the record-high summer temperatures. Across the forest surrounding the cabin, dead trees tower above forest floors stacked with dead logs and dry kindling. It’s a perfect recipe for a fire.
The changes we see around that cabin are changes that are observable across the American West.
You don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain what happened: Extreme winter weather drove an explosive growth in brush, which then died out in the summer heat, and became fuel for fire. Conditions were so dry outside Paradise, and in southern California, that these fires weren’t some freak occurrence—they were inevitabilities. As the climate continues to warm, those conditions will continue to spread north. If you want to discuss the causes of wildfire, you have to discuss climate change.