Why Everything We Know About Wildfires May Be Wrong

Governor Gavin Newsom recently launched a $2.6 billion plan to tame California’s wildfire epidemic, but experts warn that aspects of the policy are out of step with the shifting science of fire management and climate change
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As Northern California continues to burn and Southern California’s traditional peak wildfire season prepares to blow in on the Santa Ana winds, the state’s taxpayers face a climate-change-driven reckoning.

Local, state, and federal agencies nationwide are sinking massive amounts of money into wildfire prevention and suppression. In May, Governor Gavin Newsom stood in an air-tanker hangar and trumpeted a record $2.6 billion state-funded program to fight and prevent wildfires. Long before he announced it, a coalition of conservation and business interests as disparate as the California Cattlemen’s Association and the Wine Institute, as well as government agencies, research centers, citizens groups, urban planners, public utilities, architects, developers, corporations, inventors, and nonprofits, were already clamoring for Newsom to vastly increase wildfire funding in order to join the fight—or at least snatch up a bit of the cash soon to be flying around like wind-blown embers.

But even as California’s wildfire industrial complex blossoms, philosophical antagonisms are flaring over virtually every aspect of what to do about this force of nature, including which fires should be fought, when and where fire can be prevented, and the most effective ways to protect people and property when flames are headed their way.

The one thing everyone agrees on is the urgent need to keep people safe and their homes from burning. When a fire-breathing monster like Caldor menaces villages near Lake Tahoe, the understandably panicky townsfolk are willing to equalize the fight by paying fire crews whatever it takes. Glimpse lightning bolts splintering through 40,000-foot pyro-cumulonimbus clouds spawned by this summer’s Dixie fire, and just about any spending on prevention seems fiscally sound. But as soon as the immediate threats fade, the battles of how to manage wildfires in an environment under unprecedented pressure from climate change resumes.

In June, Newsom was roundly criticized after California public radio reported that he had exaggerated his claims about the progress of the state’s prevention efforts. In underscoring the complexity of this escalating policy fight, it’s important to note that a credible faction of wildfire experts was actually relieved to learn that the governor’s promise to “treat” vast swaths of fire-prone wildlands by chainsawing, weed-whacking, poisoning, and chewing them up with huge masticators had stalled.

“We all know that we’re faced with the hard reality of climate change,” the governor said in a statement to Los Angeles. “The hots are getting hotter. The drys are getting drier, and with that we’ve seen some of the largest wildfires in California history. That’s why I’ve taken an all-of-the-above approach and invested historic amounts in a short time on all fronts, including more firefighters, more aircraft, more engines, more technology, and more forest management, while expediting critical projects as necessary to meet the urgency of this moment.”

In the meantime, as acres continue to burn, many of Newsom’s wildfire strategies remain under scrutiny, if not outright attack, as discredited policies of a pre-climate-change world. Cal Fire, the agency that leads the state’s war on wildfires, is also facing increased criticism for policies that some experts dismiss as regressive and damaging.

The United States has wrestled with what to do about wildfire at least since the Peshtigo fire roared through Wisconsin in 1871, killing more than 1,500 people. It was the U.S. Army that in 1886 began making decisions about how to contend with fire in the newly created Yellowstone National Park. The U.S. Forest Service (“Only YOU can prevent forest fires”) was founded in 1905 not only to fight fires but  also to make sure America had plenty of timber. It moved to a policy of extreme suppression after the so-called Big Burn—a 1910 wildfire that scorched three-million acres across Idaho and Montana, killing 86—and later instituted a standing directive that all human-caused wildfires had to be contained by 10 a.m. the day after they started.

Founded the same year as the Forest Service, Cal Fire built its first fire lookout tower in 1922 in the Santa Cruz Mountains, bought its first fire engines in 1929, and hired its first seasonal firefighters in 1931. Today, Cal Fire, having absorbed other agencies and under the authority of the State Forester, is responsible for 31 million acres of private land and contracts with the majority of the state’s counties for emergency services. It runs fire academies, oversees demonstration forests, and has a hand in everything from archaeological research to urban forestry programs. Some critics trace what they see as Cal Fire’s overly aggressive suppression strategies—and inherent conflicts of interest in wildfire mitigation—back to those beginnings.

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Ponder the title “fire rangers.” That’s what Timothy Ingalsbee, the executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, wants to substitute, universally, for the word that happens to be the first one in his organization’s name—a title he now considers overly militaristic. “It’s a very different mission, different identity now,” he says.

Having worked for a decade with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, including a season as a helitak commando, Ingalsbee began to wonder why he and his crews risked being barbecued by remote fires that did not threaten homes or lives, fires that were arguably performing the ecological role nature had assigned. Soon, he thought, wildfire would change “from being seen as an adversary to an ally,” with those who battle wildfire “more focused on ecosystem restoration than wildfire suppression, serving more as stewards than soldiers.”

But that didn’t happen. Ingalsbee hit his tipping point of frustration at a federal fire conference in 2005. He and others, he says, felt officials were ignoring established best practices, giving preferential treatment to logging interests to clear lands that may not need clearing, fighting small lightning fires that may not need fighting, and acting as if the public had no business contemplating the arcane mysteries of fire science. He pulled several colleagues aside for a beer, and together they cooked up his organization.

Years later, and decades after Smoky Bear first appeared in advertisements extolling the Forest Service’s zero tolerance policy on firefighting, Ingalsbee’s group still decries the “pyroganda” it says the fire establishment exploits to get its way. Part of his mission, Ingalsbee says, is to encourage those who share his organization’s less militaristic approach to “change hearts and minds” with more “pro-fire” messaging: Let more fires burn naturally when it’s safe and ecologically sound to do so; keep a tighter rein on how public agencies and corporations spend tax money. The image of the firefighter—how many “Thank you, heroes” signs have you seen on TV this week?—has helped promulgate a media mindset about fire that often snubs scientists and tree huggers. “We have a credible message coming from credible messengers,” he says.

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Governor Newsom announcing his $2.6 billion firefighting initiative in May. The plan was criticized by some experts who said it relied on out- dated and discredited strategies.

CALFIRE OFFICIAL

Ingalsbee blanches at the implications of strategies that have become the norm in the fire establishment, as reflected in Newsom’s sprawling program and mottoes such as “All lands, all hands, all options.” He points to the 2018 Camp fire that devastated the Northern California town of Paradise, killing 85 people, as an example of what misguided practices can do. The area, logged over decades, had burned about ten years earlier. Logging companies went in to do salvage work that is often promoted as fire prevention. But the “flashier” grass, brush, and small trees that grew back in were perfect tinder. The blaze ripped through it faster than it would have through a more natural landscape, depriving people of valuable time to evacuate, he contends.

But the less aggressive alternatives Ingalsbee advocates are those that few politicians or ranking bureaucrats are willing to risk. In some states, including Oregon, where Ingalsbee lives, legislatures are starting to push for laws to allow private interests to sue agencies if a fire escapes public lands. So even though most agencies have adopted the ethos of letting some fires burn, this “super reactionary moment,” Ingalsbee says, is causing them to throw long-term cost-benefit analysis out the window.

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UC Santa Barbara researcher Christina Naomi Tague is among the growing number of scientists worldwide scrutinizing wildfire’s stunningly complex interactions with landscapes in the age of climate change. She began her career with a fascination for water. The field of ecohydrology drew her into studying how water affects landscapes. Not as counterintuitive as it may seem, she eventually became fascinated with H2O’s elemental opposite and how these two hydrogen-based parts of nature’s puzzle interact.

Tague’s recent work is helping fire scientists understand (and maybe someday solve the puzzle) of how water, climate, and forest growth are intertwined, and how that connection affects ecosystems as droughts become more common and the parched air that accompanies them hotter. Along with UCSB colleagues and scientists from four other western universities, she used computer modeling to predict how climate change and a history of fighting wildfires may shape the way wildfires burn in the future.

The study focused on forests but also offers clues, she says, about how tomorrow’s fire may behave in any landscape and what fire managers might do to limit risk. Her work is ongoing, but the thrust of her team’s recommendation points to letting fires burn when the situation is right and using controlled burning and other types of fuel reduction when it’s not. She warns, though, that our understanding of which situations are “right” still exceeds our scientific grasp. “California is going to spend millions and millions on fuel treatments,” she says. “And it’s still not clear how different fuel-treatment strategies work across the widely varying landscape of California.”

The research so far suggests that some places—high elevation stands of trees in the Sierra, perhaps—could actually get healthier as the climate warms. But only to a point. Then “water availability becomes a greater issue. We don’t know when such a threshold might be reached. I don’t know the redwoods well enough to know whether or not we’ll lose them in 20 or 50 years,” she says. “But if it gets hot enough, we’ll lose them. Will people care? Probably.”

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It’s not just majestic redwood groves that Richard W. Halsey, founder and executive director of the California Chapparal Institute, wants people to care about. He has upbraided journalists often over the past 20 years for failing to challenge the fire establishment’s eagerness to put what he sees as far too much tax-funded suppression and prevention in the wrong places. To grasp his perspective, consider this news story posted on the institute’s website: “During the past three or four days, destructive fires have been raging in San Bernardino, Orange, and San Diego . . . It is a year of disaster, widespread destruction of life and property—and well, a year of horrors.”

The San Bernardino Daily Courier published that in 1889.

“We’ve demonized the natural world to the point that people are terrified about it,” Halsey says. “They talk about ‘fuel’ as a sort of Orwellian term.”

One nickname for California’s chaparral, which dominates much of Southern California, is “the elfin forest” because you must plop down upon a rock and make yourself small to appreciate its intricacies. Seen from this perspective, a mature manzanita, with its sculptural branches of peeling red bark, is as glorious as a giant sequoia.

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Fighting the Caldor fire near Lake Tahoe.

ALLISON DINNER/GETTY IMAGES

Chaparral, Halsey preaches, has always burned and will always burn and is unfortunately doing so with increasing frequency as the planet warms, often in recently burned areas where highly flammable grass replaces mature brush, but also in healthy stands of old-growth chaparral. This only compounds the crisis as the latter is good at capturing the carbon that’s cooking our planet. He bridles at the push for wholesale “treatment” of these landscapes that are integral to Newsom’s plans.

“People will say, ‘Wow, that vegetation hasn’t burned in 60 years!’ But that’s actually a positive. It means it’s still in good shape,” he says. Halsey’s plea, too, is that we make sure we’re not destroying the very landscapes that draw us to the “urban-wildland interface” we fight harder each year to defend.

Given the money involved, there’s no shortage of public and private helpers stepping in to advance that defense with bigger air tankers and  hose-humping robots. Remote-controlled helicopters and biotelemetric devices to measure firefighters’ vitals are in the works. Forbes reported that Sierra Pacific Industries was earning $375 million annually by “salvaging” usable wood after fires tore through Northern California forests. Last year, for the first time, instead of wading into the breach themselves, California fire crews filled foosball-sized globes with purplish potassium permanganate and loaded 400 or so of these “dragon eggs” into a box hanging from a drone. At the right moment, the drone injected each egg with antifreeze and bombarded the drop zone. Chemicals reacted. Vegetation targeted for a back burn burst into flames.

The web of public and private collaboration coalescing around fire invariably comes undone in places. As an example of just how crazy things can get, Halsey points to a case in which a San Diego rural fire-protection district gave police power to a private contractor “to search for properties to clear vegetation, do the inspections, issue the violations, and do the work.” The contractor cleared about a half-acre on one property and sent the owner, an artist who’d designed the home and other structures himself, a bill for $26,000. With penalties, the bill grew to $65,000. Finally, authorities auctioned off the house.

Halsey doesn’t downplay the need for precautions against wildfire and protections of existing neighborhoods along the wildland-urban interface. But he suggests that the wisest strategy, ultimately, would be to stop building in places where it’s not safe. The problem with that approach, he says, is “there’s no money there.” Some lobbyists and PR consultants eager to pitch in to help craft local, state, and federal firefighting budgets are paid by developers and logging interests looking to diversify into thinning forests to create firebreaks or to tap the budding biomass business that burns forest debris to produce energy, he says.

As the contracting boom grows, Halsey says, so does Cal Fire’s influence. “They’re salivating,” he says. What started at the turn of the twentieth century as the California Department of Forestry is quickly becoming “the most powerful agency in the state,” he contends. “Every single bill that we’ve tried to influence or change language in, Cal Fire is there the next day and they say yes or no. I don’t know why they have so much power and authority over the legislature .”

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Sixty-five hundred firefighters are battling the Dixie fire when I reach Cal Fire’s chief and director, Thom Porter, to discuss Newsom’s budget and his critics’ challenges. “Six of the seven largest fires in the state’s history have burned in the last eleven months alone,” Porter says. “It’s absolutely incredible. Climate change has really given us a kick in the butt.”

Porter is impatient with those who think his agency is growing too quickly and with those who think it’s moving too slowly with its prevention efforts. The latter view, he says, fails to grasp the complexity of the “holistic . . . all-of-the-above” approach Cal Fire has adopted or the web of obstacles that virtually any effort to treat a fire-prone area confronts. Criticism of the governor’s chest-thumping about how much controlled burning would actually get done, for example, overlooks environmental impact reports, air quality regulations, and new efforts to ensure that poor folks living in a mobile home on a dirt road near Victorville get as much protection as rock stars living in Malibu.

“Climate change has really given us a kick in the butt.” —Thom Porter, Cal Fire chief and director

Porter’s interest in the natural world was spurred by growing up in the charming and highly flammable San Diego County town of Julien. He went on to study forestry at Berkeley and worked his way up through the state fire agency. He brushes off suggestions that Cal Fire coddles elected leaders’ corporate cronies, including biomass companies and logging firms, in exchange for more and more power. “Mother Nature and climate change are the ultimate lobbyists,” he says. “All we’re doing is analyzing our deficiencies.”

And the state’s needs aren’t limited to how it deals with threats to lives and homes, he adds. These notorious “last eleven months” have caused more destruction of federal and private timberlands in the state than the previous 100 years, incinerating hundreds of timber-related jobs. With the disclaimer that he is also California’s State Forester, a position that requires him to consider business as well as environmentalist interests, Porter says that seeking money for thinning undergrowth and cleaning up beetle-killed trees and replanting new ones—all pieces of Cal Fire’s “resiliency” strategy—is not “lining or fattening the pockets of an industry. It’s holding back from near-extinction one that needed to be here all along.”

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Stephen Pyne’s sweeping view of fire’s role in the shaping of civilization and the natural world began a few days after he graduated from high school in Phoenix, Arizona, in the ’60s. He’d shown up at a National Park Service office on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to sign papers for a summer job as a seasonal laborer and was dragooned into a Hot Shot crew when a member didn’t report for duty.

Pyne spent 15 seasons on the crew while earning a bachelor’s degree in history at Stanford and masters and Ph.D. at the University of Texas, Austin. Few academics were studying fire then—a college fire department, he deadpans, was the one with trucks carrying ladders and hoses. In 1982, Pyne published Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. His supervisor warned that the topic was a career killer, of little interest to readers in or out of academia. Almost 40 years later, the semiretired Arizona State University professor has published some three dozen books, won a MacArthur “genius” award, and given the obligatory TED Talk.

“The world has changed around me,” Pyne says. “It was once possible to read everything there was on the subject. That would be difficult now. There must be 30 disciplines piling into wildfire.”

As a historian, Pyne takes a view of wildfire’s future that is intricately tied to the past. It can be summed up in a word he coined for the title of his next book, about where we’ve been and where we will remain, perhaps for millennia: the Pyrocene.

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Historian Stephen Pyne says, “There must be 30 disciplines” devoted to wildfire study today.

TED TALK “FIRE: A BIOGRAPHY”COURTESY STEPHEN PYNE

Fire, Pyne says, began its symbiotic relationship with life on earth when plants first appeared on land. Four hundred and twenty million years later, humanity’s enthusiasm for combustion has triggered the fiery equivalent of a new ice age that’s beginning to radically alter landscapes, bloat ocean levels, drive mass extinctions, and contort the way humans live. This age, Pyne says, was presaged by the first time Homo erectus used fire. As humans found ingenious new uses for it, we began radically changing the natural world itself, most recently by burning coal, oil, and other hydrocarbons. As Pyne wrote: “The new combustion was no longer subject to the old ecological checks and balances. It could burn day and night, winter and summer, through drought and deluge. Its guiding rhythms were no longer wind, sun, and the seasons of growth and dormancy, but the cycles of human economies.”

Pyne’s take on fire is refreshing for its willingness to ponder the web of myth, history, and science. It’s imperative to understand, he writes, that “fire is a reaction. It synthesizes its surroundings, takes its character from its context. It burns one way in peat, another in tallgrass prairie . . .” He calls fire “a shape-shifter.” What shape are we encouraging fire to take in California? On our planet? What are we willing to sacrifice for the right to keep using this force, and how apocalyptic must the bargain be?

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Keith Gilless, a professor emeritus of Forest Economics at UC Berkeley, says Californians need to weigh competing interests for their money against the costly mayhem that climate disruption is only going to make worse. He’s chair of the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, so it’s probably a given that he sees value in more techno-wizardry and boots on the burning ground, in more suppression and prevention. His wife is a retired pediatrician, immersed in questions of prevention and cure. “I would argue that we’ve underinvested in public health in the same way we’ve underinvested in wildfire, particularly prevention,” he says as he describes the tangle of sometimes competing challenges. “There’s no quick turnaround to global warming and weather volatility,” he says. “Extreme events of all types are going to go up under any credible scenario. We’ve got to deal with it. We have to work on the acute and the chronic problems.”

Gilles figures it’s unrealistic to think that anyone can or necessarily should put an end to development along the wildland-urban interface. While “there are situations where we should say there’s too much risk, I don’t think we need to abandon vast swatches of California,” he says. But Californians do need to find ways to ensure that new developments are as safe as possible—by surrounding them with green belts, for example.

For existing neighborhoods, he suggests we use the marketplace and regulation to improve escape routes and advance-warning technologies and encourage people to “harden” their homes with fire-resistant roofs, updated sprinkler systems, and other strategies. “How aggressive do you want to be?” he asks. “It’s always an issue of balance. . . The gold standard in the forestry world is adaptive management. All actions are seen as experiments, and you adapt as you go.”


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