Why is the US west burning? Everybody is saying "climate change," but that is only partly right. The basic reality is that dry forests burn. If you don't let small fires reduce the amount of fuel available, old wood builds up until any fire will be catastrophic. Scientists understand this perfectly well. They have pressured the federal and state governments to stop fighting all fires and to use controlled burns to reduce fuel. But this, it turns out, is really hard to do, because nobody like fires and any plan to start one intentionally is met by angry opposition.
Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire. . . .
Carl Skinner, another Cassandra, who started firefighting in Lassen County in 1968 and who retired in 2014 after 42 years managing and researching fire for the U.S. Forest Service, sounded profoundly, existentially tired. “We’ve been talking about how this is where we were headed for decades.”
“It’s painful,” said Craig Thomas, director of the Fire Restoration Group. He, too, has been having the fire Cassandra conversation for 30 years. He’s not that hopeful, unless there’s a power change. “Until different people own the calculator or say how the buttons get pushed, it’s going to stay that way.”
A six-word California fire ecology primer: The state is in the hole.
A seventy-word primer: We dug ourselves into a deep, dangerous fuel imbalance due to one simple fact. We live in a Mediterranean climate that’s designed to burn, and we’ve prevented it from burning anywhere close to enough for well over a hundred years. Now climate change has made it hotter and drier than ever before, and the fire we’ve been forestalling is going to happen, fast, whether we plan for it or not.
Megafires, like the ones that have ripped this week through 1 million acres (so far), will continue to erupt until we’ve flared off our stockpiled fuels. No way around that.
When I reached Malcolm North, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who is based in Mammoth, California, and asked if there was any meaningful scientific dissent to the idea that we need to do more controlled burning, he said, “None that I know of.”
Part of the problem is that setting fires is inherently risky, and our systems are set up to avoid risk. With so many people living in the forests, a fire that gets even a little out of control could destroy homes and endanger lives, and who wants to take responsibility for that?
Burn bosses in California can more easily be held liable than their peers in some other states if the wind comes up and their burn goes awry. At the same time, California burn bosses typically suffer no consequences for deciding not to light. No promotion will be missed, no red flags rise. “There’s always extra political risk to a fire going bad,” Beasley said. “So whenever anything comes up, people say, OK, that’s it. We’re gonna put all the fires out.”
Some of the experts cited in this article talk about wanting to burn a million acres a year, but when asked how that might happen, they are stumped. One suggested that if a fire destroyed San Diego, that might be enough. But then again it might not.