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  • Jennifer F. Novak

California’s Wildfire Plight: Past Causes and Future Solutions

Our October 2020 Newsletter Article

California wildfire

Headlines and stories describing the raging wildfires in California, and the entire west coast, continue to dominate our newsfeeds. California has experienced over 8,300 wildfires that have burned more than four million acres already this year, including the first recorded million-acre megafire in California history.


Wildfires in California are nothing new, and in fact, are part of a healthy ecosystem. What has changed is that today’s fires are larger and spread more quickly than in the past. To better understand what’s happening today, we need to take a look back.


A Brief History of California Wildfires


The entire California ecosystem evolved with fire, and for that reason, it is naturally adapted to recover from wildfires. When indigenous people occupied what is now California, they used fire and fundamental ecological principles to keep the land healthy. They understood the benefits of prescriptive burning during the cooler, less windy months, which included rejuvenation of forested areas and clearing the forest floor of dead, dried plant material that could ignite quickly and burn longer. They were punished for those practices. The government put an end to prescriptive burning and vowed to extinguish any fire that broke out in California’s forests. Fire suppression became the law of the land. Thankfully, that perspective has changed, and efforts are now underway to work in coordination with Native American tribes and the Forest Service to achieve better results.


What is Causing Wildfires Today?


Expert opinions vary, but the five most often cited causes of current wildfire destruction are:


Climate change – This August was California’s hottest on record. With rising temperatures, longer and drier summers, and more drought, forested areas are drier, hotter, and more prone to burning. There is also less humidity overnight to abate fires and contain their spread. Drier conditions also make trees more vulnerable—they become susceptible to diseases and to infestations from insects like bark beetles, which otherwise coexist and whose population is kept in check in a healthy forest. But when the balance is lost, these otherwise innocuous elements end up killing the trees and making them more apt to burn.


Forest management - Without consistent and targeted tree thinning practices, the dense population of trees strangle smaller plants, especially during droughts. Then, without controlled burns, forest floors are stacked with dead branches, dried leaves, and other brush-like debris that serve as fuel for fires.


Lightning - This past August, California experienced over 12,000 lightning strikes in one week. Many of these strikes were “dry lightning” accompanied by strong winds and little or no rain. Again, these are naturally occurring conditions whose frequency and intensity has risen due to climate change, thereby escalating the frequency and intensity of the fires they cause.


Arson or careless people – Reckless campers and hikers who leave campfires unattended, careless smokers throwing cigarettes out of cars, and arsonists are also to blame for starting wildfires each year. In 2020 so far, 72 people have been arrested for arson in California.


Population growth into more fire-prone areas – Thanks in large part to an ongoing housing crisis, people continue to move away from cities in search of affordable housing, and many new communities infringe on fire-prone areas, simply adding literal fuel to the fires. Along with the suburban sprawl comes additional power lines, which have been cited as the source of some devastating wildfires.



Can We Prevent Wildfires?


History proves that fire is a necessary part of a forest’s life-cycle, so while prevention from causes like human carelessness is critical, an equally important question is how can we control wildfires?


Forest management and climate change impact wildfires. The fire-prone areas of the Sierra Nevada range in California are similar to those in Baja California, Mexico. The difference in the two regions is that while California has increasingly devastating wildfires, Mexico’s environment is healthy and fire-resistant. The difference? Mexico has generally allowed nature to manage itself. The pristine Baja range is an example of what the drier portions of the Sierra Nevada forests could look like if they hadn’t been extensively stripped by logging and fire suppression regulations over the last decades. The California Fire Science Consortium at U.C. Berkeley determined the Baja forest ecosystem also is more resistant to drought, insects, and disease.


The Public Policy Institute of California has suggested several ways to combat our worsening wildfires. The top four solutions are:


1. Setting prescribed fires to improve forest resilience and reduce the severity of fires that do start.

2. Enact policies that require new construction projects to use more fire-resistant materials and to replace existing exteriors with those that resist burning.

3. Create community fuel breaks in residential areas by removing flammable materials and design areas where firefighters can work safely to battle fires.

4. Use the Baja forest ecosystem as a guide to return California’s forests to former healthy conditions, or better prepare them for climate change.


While there is no easy solution to the wildfire puzzle, there are steps we can take to address the devastation. Homeowners should keep their property clear from all brush and other combustibles, everyone must be careful with recreational fires and smoking devices, and we must implement better forest management practices to limit the size and spread of fires. Like Smokey Bear urges us to.

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