Fireproof: How to prevent catastrophic wildfires from ruining more lives

Updated: Dec 24, 2018

We have now addressed how fires historically burned in California, the human forces that changed California’s fire regime, the behavior of catastrophic wildfires, fire-caused debris flows, and how to protect yourself from post-fire catastrophes. But can we disrupt the cycle of destruction? I believe we can. While fire is inevitable, deadly wildfires can be eliminated in California and the Western US. This problem is messy and no one solution is going to be a silver bullet. That said, here are my recommendations that we all can help with.

Prescribed Burns: We do not conduct prescribed burns at a high enough rate. A century of fire suppression has left us with precipitously high levels of flammable fuels in our forests and other wildlands. Where low-level surface fires are natural, prescribed burns are a must. These fires are carried out by professionals in low-risk months where temperatures are low, wind speeds are low, and moisture is high. Under these conditions, fire can be safely used to reduce fuel loads without eviscerating acres of forest lands. Using geographic information systems technology, prescribed burn need (as well as risk level) can be mapped and carefully completed.

Prescribed burning is a crucial tool to reduce fuel loads in a society that must limit fire. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Monitor Natural Burns: Why let some fires burn when they so often lead to destruction? Firstly, because it was our fire suppression policies that got us into this mess in the first place. Secondly, the vast majority of fires come nowhere near the intensity of the fires that make headlines. Karen C. Short of the US Forest Service conducted a comprehensive review of recorded wildland fires that were addressed by federal agencies since the early 1900s. Short discovered that approximately 70% of these fires would have naturally burned out before reaching 300 acres in size, which is widely considered the gold standard for firefighting. A further 5% had conditions so unfavorable that no fire suppression efforts would have prevented the fires from “getting away”; these fires only really stop when weather conditions change. This leaves a meager 25% of fires that are useful for firefighters to actively suppress. Suppressing safe fires like this wastes money, prevents fuel loads from naturally decreasing, and instills a false sense of firefighting efficacy in the heart of the public. This naturally leads to misplaced rage at firefighting agencies when the untamable fires come. If we’re going to pay nearly $3 billion each year putting out fires, why don’t we instead spend that much up front in preventative measures? Utilize data-driven risk mapping to carefully assess which fires should be allowed to burn, and use the savings to treat areas at risk of uncontrollable fire.

Ecological Forest Thinning: Yes, I’m talking about logging. Yes, I’m still an environmentalist. Over the past century, fire suppression has increased tree density, reduced average tree size, strained tree health, and altered natural species compositions in the forest to favor fire-susceptible trees. If we log intelligently, we can remove the correct species, leave the healthiest and most resilient trees, and reintroduce fire breaks where they would naturally occur. Crucially, the trees that remain will compete less intensely for nutrients, sunlight, and most importantly, water. Note: I am not promoting a one-size fits all approach. Inyo County forests are not the same as Shasta County forests, and one side of a mountain can have dramatically different conditions than the other side. Using local talent, local knowledge, and local conditions, we can craft unique harvest plans that will protect forests from fire without harming wildlife.

Mitigate Climate Change: Addressing forest fires has never been an either/or situation. Forest management is needed, and so is a reduction in carbon emissions. In the long term, we need to reduce the climatic changes that contribute to hotter temperatures, longer droughts, and lower moisture levels. These conditions will continue to affect the frequency and severity of fires. Together, resetting natural climate and forest conditions will prevent the environment from resetting these conditions for us.

Plan Your Cities Appropriately: We need to better plan our cities to reduce sprawl into the wildland-urban interface (WUI) and avoid development in high fire-risk areas. Although everyone loves the stunning views associated with living at the edge of nature, it comes with tremendous risk. Location sells houses, but it also destroys them. It doesn’t have to be this way. I can drive 15 minutes in any direction from my house and reach a natural area. I can easily reach the forests, but I’m not in a high fire-risk zone. I live minutes from the Sacramento River, but FEMA tells me I’m in a low flood risk zone. If we plan appropriately, we can have our cake and eat it too. Live close to the nature you love, but don’t live in it unless you are a farmer, rancher, forester, or otherwise know how to care for your land. The more we extend into the wildland-urban interface, the more houses we put at risk of destruction, and the more land we must alter to defend them.

As the Wildland-Urban Interface grows, so does fire risk. Photo Credit: Georgia Forestry Commission.

We must embrace the concept of infill. We must build more developments inside the existing urban (or suburban) areas rather than extending anthropomorphic tendrils deeper into the “wild”. For the sake of scenic views we develop deeper into the WUI, just for these views to be eliminated as further development surrounds these areas. Let’s keep the wild intact, give firefighters a place to concentrate their efforts, and allow the insulating effect of neighbors keep a fire from rushing to our doorsteps.

Infill would utilize this marginal habitat in a beneficial way to humans without contributing to urban sprawl. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Further development is needed as our population grows, to be sure. Still, we can prevent this development from causing heartache in the future. Think on that. Speak on that. Vote on that.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. –Margaret Mead

This ends my series on wildfire for now. I plan to revisit this as the landscape continues to regenerate. Stay tuned for a look at Death Valley National Park starting next week!

Educational Sources:

Abatzoglou, John and Williams, Park. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. “Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests”. October 2016.

Hessberg, Paul. “Living (Dangerously) in an Era of Megafires”. TEDx Bend, Oregon. 2017.

Moritz, Max; Tague, Naomi; and Anderson, Sarah. KQED. “Wildfires Are Inevitable – Increasing Home Losses, Fatalities and Costs Are Not.” August 2018.

Oregon Department of Forestry & US Forest Service. Oregon Advanced Wildfire Risk Explorer. 2018.

Schick, Tony. Oregon Public Broadcast. “Can 'Moneyball' Fix How the West Manages Wildfire?”. July 2018.

Schick, Tony and Burns, Jes. Oregon Public Broadcast. “Efforts to Reduce Wildfire Risk Fall Short, Buck Science”. July 2018.

Short, Karen. US Forest Service Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. “Rethinking Performance Measurement in US Federal Wildland Fire Management: Putting Initial Attack Success in its Place.” October 2016.

US Forest Service Northern Research Station. “Houses in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) by State.” 2015.

Photo Credits:

Georgia Forestry Commission. "Wildland-Urban Interface". 2005.

Wikipedia. "Prescribed fire in ponderosa pine forest in eastern Washington (USA) to restore ecosystem health." April 2015.

Wikipedia. "Example of a potential urban infill site." May 2010.