As record-breaking fires blacken millions of hectares in California and elsewhere in the western US this year, politicians are mostly sticking to a standard script in response. US President Joe Biden’s proposed budget this year includes a US$500 million boost to what the White House calls “forest management” and other efforts to reduce wildfire risk. In July, California lawmakers approved US$1.5 billion in similar prevention spending.
The funds are in addition to the US$2 billion the federal government spends each year fighting fires — a figure twice what it was 10 years ago and roughly five times more than in the 1980s and 1990s. A study last year found that in 2018, wildfires in California caused US$148.5 billion in economic damage, including US$46 billion outside the state.
Roughly one in three US houses is in what forest scientists call the wildland-urban interface, where growing cities, remote workers, second-home buyers and commuters priced out of other housing markets are often pushing into fire-prone regions. A 2017 study found that 900,000 homes in the western US worth a combined US$237 billion were “at high risk for fire damage.”
In California, migration into counties in and adjacent to the Sierra Nevada — the part of the state, along with brush-covered hillsides closer to the coast, most prone to wildfire — grew by as much as 20 percent during the fourth quarter of last year, according to a report by the California Policy Lab.
When the landscape burns, as it is primed to do in an era of climate change, the question is: What, or who, should be managed to reduce wildfire risks — forests or people? What if fires are less of a problem for forests than they are for people?
The conventional wisdom for solving the crisis sounds like common sense: Clear the dense forests choked with brush and dead wood, and set small, controlled fires to return the forest to a time before humans aggressively put out every wildfire. This strategy is endorsed by residents of rural communities, the timber industry, home builders and some environmentalists.
However, forest scientists say management alone is not sufficient to reduce wildfire risk to human communities. Research shows that the most cost-effective solutions often focus less on keeping forests from burning and more on influencing where and how people live.
“One of the biggest disconnects I see out there, whether by a journalist or a legislative staffer or my neighbor, is this conflation of the problems and the solutions,” said Max Moritz, a professor of fire ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Moritz co-wrote a 2018 report that synthesized current wildfire research into a series of broadly agreed-upon recommendations and conclusions. The report, which represents consensus views of most forest scientists, gave at best a supporting role to forest management, and offered a different view of how fire works in western US landscapes and how governments should respond.
Moritz and other scientists see wildfire not primarily as a landscape problem but as a people problem. Forests evolved over millenniums to depend on fire, even severe fire. Some fires burning today are large by historical standards and may alter the extent and composition of some western US forests.
However, tree-ring research and other forms of observation provide abundant evidence of previous eras of landscape-altering wildfires, and studies are inconclusive about the ability of forest management — especially mechanical tree-thinning — to stop or slow powerful, wind-driven fires.
“If the desired outcome is to reduce home losses, you spend money on hardening homes,” Moritz said.
A 2019 survey of five years’ worth of wildfire data in California found that simple, relatively inexpensive modifications to existing homes — replacing wood shake roofs, sealing eaves, installing grates over chimneys and vents — were more likely to protect homes from fire than clearing nearby brush and thinning trees.
That is because wildfires damage homes not by sweeping over them but by producing wind-borne embers that land on roofs or get sucked into vents and set buildings on fire. The study found that even homes protected by more than 30m of so-called defensible space burned. Embers can travel more than 1.6km ahead of the advancing front of a wildfire. No amount of forest thinning can stop that.
Last year, more than 200 climate and forest scientists sent a letter to the US Congress urging lawmakers to transition away from mechanical forest management because it has only limited benefits and, under certain conditions, can make wildfires worse by littering the forest with wood debris and eliminating natural wind breaks.
Given the obvious effect of human behavior on wildfire risk, and the relatively low cost of modifying homes or limiting development in fire-prone areas, why are policymakers directing nearly all of their spending toward costly expansions of firefighting capability and forest management projects that can slow or reduce the severity of some wildfires but are less effective at protecting homes?
“There’s naivete about ecology and it’s good for local industry,” University of Montana forest ecology professor Richard Hutto said. “Politicians, even Democrats, don’t get the story about the role of fire in the forests, and the Republican Party is in bed with the timber industry.”
This year, two bills in California’s Democratic Party-controlled legislature, which would have prohibited new development in the most fire-prone areas of the state and strengthened regulations governing land-use planning and residential construction, died in committee. The bills, dubbed “housing killers” by California home builders, were opposed by local governments, timber companies, realtors and the construction industry.
Chris Ochoa, legislative counsel for the California Building Industry Association, said new limits on rural or exurban development fail to account for the merciless forces of California’s housing market, which has long been thrown out of balance by development limits in high-priced cities — limits often advocated by the same environmentalists who demand an end to building in fire-prone areas.
“If you look at maps of natural disasters, wildfires or earthquakes, floods, there are few areas in California that are immune from disaster,” Ochoa said. “You can’t say, ‘Let’s ban building in every place that has potential for a disaster.’ In California, that’s next to impossible.”
Other economic factors are at stake. Nick Smith, an Oregon lobbyist for the timber industry, said that scientists who question the effectiveness of forest thinning are neglecting the timber industry’s central role in rural economies.
“Any manufacturing business requires a steady stream of raw material,” Smith said. If forest-thinning operations are curtailed, mills would go out of business, and there would no longer be equipment or skilled workers to do forest work.
“You’re not going to have these businesses,” he said.
DEFINING POLICY GOALS
To sort through competing interests, policymakers first must decide what their goal is.
If the goal is protecting lives and homes, funds would be redirected primarily toward fire-proofing communities with stricter regulations and targeted prescribed burns, and lawmakers would find the courage to limit development in at-risk areas and enable higher-density building elsewhere. Firefighting would remain a priority, and mechanical thinning would be used sparingly to prepare especially dense forests for prescribed burning.
If the goal is mitigating the effects of human-caused climate change and winding back the ecological clock in forests, funds would be directed toward even more prescribed burns and letting natural fires take their course. That also would require political courage because prescribed fires generate smoke, sometimes burn out of control and do not directly benefit rural economies.
One way or another, people living in the fire-prone landscapes of the western US must accept something that historically has not been part of the region’s character: limits.
There is a limit to how many people can live safely in a fire-dependent landscape. There is a limit to how much human engineering can alter a natural phenomenon like wildfire, and there is a limit to how much Americans are willing to spend to fight fires and cull trees so that wealthy people in California can enjoy pristine views from their Lake Tahoe cabins.
Forest scientists understand the need to protect the lives and homes already exposed to wildfire, but they are realistic about the inevitability of larger and more frequent fires in a warming climate.
“The fact of the matter is, a lot of these places are going to be changing,” Moritz said. “You could do lots of thinning and try to get low severity fire through those places to slow the transition and buffer the impacts.”
Or, he said, “maybe we should take advantage of these fires coming in and knocking these landscapes around. Maybe that helps these species acclimate to a changing climate. The jury is out on how to achieve that.”
In 2013, the Rim Fire in California burned 104,131 hectares in the Sierra Nevada, including more than 31,565 hectares in Yosemite National Park. The fire, started by a hunter’s illegal campfire, cost more than US$127 million to contain. An initial US Forest Service assessment found that high-severity flames had swept through 40 percent of the burn area.
A year later, after closer inspection, the Forest Service revised that estimate to just 20 percent. Trees that had appeared dead in news images began to sprout new needles. Black-backed woodpeckers, a species that evolved to live primarily in recently burned forest areas, moved in and began feeding on insects that inhabit burned trees. New trees could be seen pushing up through the rich nutrients of charred soil. Other species were similarly thriving in what scientists call a Complex Early Seral Forest landscape.
Only one part of the burn area was relatively devoid of growth: The land cleared by logging companies under a federal contract to remove dead trees so they did not become fuel for a future fire.
Jim Hinch is a senior editor at Guideposts magazine
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