The situation in California sucks. Really. The death toll and damage are horrific, and when the ash settles, tens of thousands of lives will never be the same. As is the norm with these tragedies, the lion’s share of pain will be borne disproportionately by those least equipped to sustain it: the elderly, the young, and the underprivileged.
As I’m writing this, the deadliest, most destructive fire in California’s history has incinerated swaths of our largest state. Over 80 people are confirmed dead, hundreds are unaccounted for, and thousands were evacuated, many of which now have no home to return to.
What Smokey Bear Got Wrong
Smokey Bear was the furry icon for a cultural movement that, while well-intended, eventually inadvertently led to the destruction of homes and human life. (And, yes, it’s “Smokey Bear,” not “Smokey the Bear.” But, regardless, he was wrong — or at least unhelpful.)
In the early 1900s, after the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service, the government placed swaths of land under governmental protection. At the time, “protection” meant preventing the area from being consumed by fire—an instinctively logical standpoint. Throughout the early to mid-1900s, anti-wildfire campaigns sprung up to alert the public to the dangers of wildfires. Smokey Bear was featured in one of these campaigns. They were a combined force of government agencies interested in “preservation” and private interests, such as recreational groups and the timber industry, who knew that a lush forest was more marketable and profitable to customers than a flaming pile of ash. These anti-wildfire campaigns were so effective that some of their slogans and imagery are still around today—for better or worse.
Humans are the main cause of forest fires.
It wasn’t until the mid- to late 1900s that we began to realize what Native Americans had known long before: Fire suppression doesn’t work. In fact, the very steps we were taking to protect our forests and the property surrounding them were the same steps that led to their destruction. This effect has become known as the “Smokey Bear Effect.”
Fire suppression fails for one simple reason: Fires are supposed to happen. Fires reset the cycle of a wildland and they keep ecosystems in check. But in a fire-suppressed forest, this reset doesn’t occur. As forests mature uninhibited and more and more carbon is converted into wood, the pot of fuel that a flame can access becomes larger and larger. Then, when a fire is lit, it burns hotter and longer than it otherwise would have.
And while fire suppression isn’t the only cause, statistics show that fires have gotten bigger. Especially recently. Last year was the most destructive year on record for wildfires in California—that is, until this year was correctly predicted to be even worse. And though 2018’s fire season is still raging and the damage is not yet fully assessed, California is currently experiencing its deadliest wildfire on record.
The graph below from a California EPA report demonstrates that while small fires have remained relatively constant and predictable since the 1950s, large fires have worsened dramatically.
And, as the below chart shows, out of the top 20 wildfires from 1932–2017, 14 have happened since 2000. This chart will become even more startling once 2018’s Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire are added. The Camp Fire, which was finally contained as of Nov. 25, burned over 150,000 acres.
Granted, the most recent conflagrations may also be due in large part to climate change, but historically improper forest management (and a hard-to-expunge anti-fire sentiment from the agencies and interests who manage forests) have certainly contributed.
To understand the problem with fire suppression comprehensively, though, we must also understand some ecological principles.
Fire suppression is bad because nature actually needs fires. For instance, jack pines and giant sequoias both carry their seeds in cones that only open up and release the seeds when exposed to a fire’s heat. The trees evolved this way because the fire heat acts as an indicator to trees that there is low competition from underbrush and a sapling may thrive in the post-fire environment. Sequoias also rely on fires to reduce the growth of smaller tree species that would otherwise out-compete them. These competitors are species, such as white fir or incense cedar, that are able to survive in the shade of a thick forest.
Fire suppression is bad because nature actually needs fires.
Fire is also beneficial in culling invasive species that are well-adapted to the environmental conditions otherwise, but are incapable of rebounding after a fire. For example, wood ash is a stellar natural fertilizer and it can act as a liming agent that improves regrowth of small plants. Compounding this effect, fire removes the upper leaf canopy that permits rain and sunshine to reach the forest floor, further providing nourishment to the plants on the forest floor.
These benefits make fire not just helpful, but essential to ecosystems.
For all that Smokey Bear got wrong, he got one thing right: Humans are the main cause of forest fires. Only about 10 percent of wildfires originate from natural causes. The other 90 percent of fires are caused by sparks from electrical equipment, improperly extinguished cigarettes, unattended campfires, arson, or any of the other fire-genic activities humans partake in. The Camp Fire is likely traceable back to a power line problem from PG&E.
Forest management is undoubtedly a factor in wildfires, but it is only one facet of the problem. Climate change plays an increasingly starring role in our natural disasters.
Yes, Climate Change Is Part of the Problem
Climate change is hitting California hard. Recent droughts, while not entirely attributable to climate change, have left landscapes parched, and the dryness can turn a previously lush forest into a landscape of mega-matchsticks. Below is a graphic from the California EPA report on the severity of droughts going back to 1985.
Data also shows that the annual average temperature of California is rising. This raises concerns for drought because, according to fire scientist Mike Flanigan, with every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit that the average air temperature rises, 15 percent more rain is required to rehydrate plants. Without this extra water, the dryness creates a habitat suited perfectly for a wildfire.
The higher temperatures combined with unpredictable weather, changing wind patterns, and altered snow melt can lead to a more dangerous, volatile environment where fires can thrive.
The Problem with President Trump’s Response
While President Donald Trump retreated from this statement in later tweets, he eventually doubled down on the sentiment that inept California land management was to blame and that climate change played no part. He even reiterated his conspiracy theory that climate change isn’t real.
In response, Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, shared a statement:
The early moments of fires such as these are a critical time, when lives are lost, entire communities are wiped off the map and our members are injured or killed trying to stop these monstrous wildfires. To minimize the crucial, life-saving work being done and to make crass suggestions such as cutting off funding during a time of crisis shows a troubling lack of real comprehension about the disaster at hand and the dangerous job our fire fighters do. His comments are reckless and insulting to the fire fighters and people being affected.
Firefighters weren’t having it from Trump—and with good reason. Trump wasn’t useful in providing facts, he wasn’t useful in providing empathy, and he wasn’t useful in generating fruitful debate. But, within Trump’s tweet, there is one small sliver of ignorance worth dissection: his claim that poor modern-day Californian land management is to blame for the current disaster.
Bashing California seems to be a favorite pastime of right-wing pundits and politicians. Aside from the ubiquitous “out-of-touch coastal elite” comments, provocateurs also bemoan the state’s policies on sanctuary cities and income taxes. Trump has habitually picked personal fights with California Gov. Jerry Brown and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. So these grudges should bear in mind whenever Trump comments on situations in California.
The majority of government-managed forest is under the executive agencies of the USFS and the DOI — each of which have been subject to President Trump’s policy decisions.
But the truth is, 57 percent of California’s forestland is federally owned and managed. This means the management of these forests is under federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, which work under president-appointed leadership. Of the other 43 percent of forestland, 40 percent is privately owned by timber companies or Native American tribes. The final 3 percent is either state or local agency owned.
Quite frankly, California’s state government actually does extremely little forest management. Instead, the majority of government-managed forest is under the executive agencies of the USFS and the DOI—each of which have been subject to President Trump’s policy decisions.
Trump has consistently proposed budgets that would slash the ability of the USFS and DOI to function. For instance, in his proposed 2019 budget, he requested a 19-percent reduction in the USFS research budget, along with a proposed 8-percent cut in the research budget of the National Parks Service and a 26-percent cut to the research budget of the U.S. Geological Survey. Each of these agencies is tasked to some degree with learning about wildfires and proper land management, and when their budgets are cut, their efforts are weakened. While the president did propose a small budget boost toward reducing fire risk, many interest groups pointed out that he did not go nearly far enough. American Forests, a group dedicated to forest conservation, responded in February 2018:
While the Administration’s budget proposes a slight increase in funds to reduce wildfire risk on America’s national forests, it does not propose a comprehensive fix to the wildfire suppression budgeting issue, especially regarding the erosion of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget due to the rising costs of suppression. The budget ultimately reduces overall funding for the National Forest System by more than $170 million. Of equal concern, the budget proposes to eliminate key programs from the State and Private Cooperative Forestry division including Urban and Community Forestry, Forest Legacy, Community Forests and Open Space, and Landscape Scale Restoration.
The proposed reductions to the national forests and to state and private forestry also come at a time when U.S. forests are needed to help slow climate change, yet also face existential threats from a changing climate. America’s forests and forest products currently sequester and store more than 14 percent of annual U.S. carbon emissions, a natural climate solution that requires continued investment in keeping forests as forests, and managing for healthy forests in a changing climate.
While Trump may point fingers at others for what he considers poor land management, the buck—or at least a good portion of the buck—actually stopped with him.
As the Associated Press pointed out, land management is actually likely not the biggest contributor to the severity of recent fires. Instead, scientists from all across the world said that climate change and poor luck are perhaps larger factors. The first nine months of 2018 were the fourth-warmest on record for California, and the summer was the hottest recorded. Add to this the previous years of drought and the result is swaths of shriveled shrubs and bone-dry trees for tinder and fuel.
Essentially, our president is wrong—very wrong. He tried to talk about something he knew little about, and when interest groups saw the ignorance he was spreading, they spoke up. While poor forest management may have played a role in the rampant fires we see now, it was not a prominent one, and the fault for the poor management actually falls on the U.S. executive branch or private industry—not the State of California.
Fixing the Problems
Clearly, the problem here is complex. What are the solutions?
Well, there are many half-solutions. First, we must understand that firefighting isn’t simply about having more water to douse the fire with. Instead, the best tactic is to cut off access to fuel so the fire burns itself out. The red-dyed retardant that can often be seen dropping from aircraft does not serve to extinguish the fire, it serves to stop or slow it by reducing the effectiveness of the fuel it covers.
When it comes to making forest fires less destructive, it’s really about keeping fuel quantity under control through smart land management. Fortunately, California has a forward-looking citizenry and legislature fully aware of the impending risks that climate change and forest fires pose, and a number of reports and recommendations have surfaced to advise policy. Two of those reports come from the California EPA and a watchdog group called the Little Hoover Commission. Pedro Nava, chair of LHC, wrote the following in a letter to ranking members of the California legislature:
Proactive forest management practices recommended by the Commission gradually will rebuild healthy high-country forests that store more water, resist new insect infestations and check the speed and intensity of wildfires. Investing upfront to create these healthier forests will pay dividends in the long run by curbing the spiraling costs of state firefighting and tree removal while building stronger recreation and sport economies in the Sierra Nevada. Forests largely restored to the less crowded natural conditions of centuries ago — through greater use of prescribed burning to replace unilateral policies of fire suppression and mechanical thinning to remove buildup of forest fuels — also will improve wildlife habitat, enhance environmental quality and add to the resilience of mountain landscapes amidst the uncertaines of climate change.
Nava sets forth a backdrop for what he believes a good solution should accomplish. The report believed that good fire policy isn’t about being anti-fire—it’s about being pro-ecosystems. Good fire policy sees fire as an asset, a tricky asset, but an asset nonetheless.
In regards to specific recommendations, the EPA and the LHC encouraged the California and federal governments to adopt the following measures:
1. More Prescribed Burns
Prescribed burns reduce the amount of fuel available for a wildfire, thereby weakening it or slowing it, if not entirely preventing it. Prescribed burning has benefits that simple forest clearing does not, as the ecological effects of fire are unique and essential to landscapes.
2. More Accommodating Regulations
California has relatively strict air quality standards that stem from their environmentally conscious legislature. While these standards are beneficial to the state’s environment, they can create a hindrance to planning and carrying out organized burns. These regulations should be relaxed to allow for better burn planning. Additionally, technology and ecosystem modeling should be used to determine when and where prescribed burns may be used to cause the least amount of adverse effects to air quality.
3. Better Interagency Communication
Interagency communication has always been the bane of good environmental policy. Managers of Californian wildlands are not exempt from this. The majority of California’s forestland is owned federally by the DOI, the USFS, or private interests, and these different agencies inevitably have different goals and beliefs of what “good” management looks like.
For instance, the USFS, in recognizing the need for natural fire, may permit a wildfire to burn uninhibited throughout a landscape, but a neighboring timber company might not be so keen to have an unpredictable, profit-destroying force just next door. One step to reducing this interagency conflict is to include more stakeholders in policy meetings and be sure that communication is always open and honest so that burns and harvests can be coordinated to best reduce the risk of destructive fires.
4. Expanding the Timber and Biomass Markets
This answer is the traditionally conservative one and it attempts to harness the power of the private sector to solve a public problem. The solution is valid, but imperfect. Proponents argue that if timber and biomass companies are granted greater latitude in their deforestation activities, they will reduce the presence of fire-fuel and will do so at no cost to taxpayers.
But deforested land becomes highly vulnerable to a non-native species called “cheatgrass,” which is highly flammable and is known to be a good starting tinder for wildfires. In addition, many of California’s forests are too dry for timber use, and the only real market use for the wood is as biomass for producing energy. Unfortunately, Californian biomass facilities have been closing down. To promote more biomass energy production to incentivize dry-wood harvest, California should consider subsidizing the facilities or examining whether they can be retrofitted with greener technology so they will qualify for tax incentives.
5. Educate Californians—Both Officials and Citizens
Currently, some Californian environmental groups outright oppose prescribed fire and logging on principle, which makes forward political movement on forest management difficult. By better educating Californians about the environmental and public health benefits of prescribed burns and smart timber harvest, citizen pressure will shift to account for a more comprehensive view of forest policy.
Legislators themselves, both state and federal, must also be educated on what makes good wildland policy. Through the provision of information, we can address the problem of forest fires with the complexity it deserves.