National News

To Help Prevent the Next Big Wildfire, Let the Forest Burn

Posted December 1, 2018 3:37 p.m. EST

Small, controlled fires today could mean fewer big, destructive fires tomorrow.

Much of California’s forested land is overgrown, partly because of federal regulations from 1910 that mandated stamping out wildfires as soon as possible. These policies were revised in the 1960s and ‘70s to allow some fires to run their course, but much of the West has found that politically, and practically, difficult.

At the height of the recent blazes in Malibu and Paradise, California, President Donald Trump tweeted that there was “no reason” for the fires besides “gross mismanagement” by the state. Experts, however, attribute California’s string of destructive fires to three trends: decades of fire suppression, more people in fire-prone areas and hotter, drier conditions caused by climate change.

The solution needs to address all these things, but to begin, policymakers and citizens must abandon the idea that fire is always a threat. Instead, they should permit modest, ecologically necessary wildfires to burn.

Before the 1800s, most forests in California burned every five to 25 years from wildfires caused by lightning or Native American burning practices, said Scott Stephens, a fire ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Forests across California have grown much denser over the past 70 years, partly because large trees have been harvested by loggers. In their place are many young, small trees that burn more easily because of their thinner bark and slimmer trunks.

Decreasing the amount of fuel available to wildfires requires practices that remove vegetation, like prescribed fires and the selective removal of smaller trees.

Patchwork forest ownership impedes the use of these strategies. Almost 40 percent of California’s forested land is owned by private landowners, most of whom own small tracts, lack the expertise to conduct prescribed burns and fear being held liable if the fire spreads.

Complicating matters, more than 11 million Californians live in what’s called the wildland-urban interface, fire-prone areas between unoccupied land and developed zones. The presence of people in these areas makes it difficult to conduct prescribed burns and increases wildfire risk because of the proximity of flammable vegetation to human-related ignition sources.

The changing climate in California is worsening these tinderboxlike conditions and stressing crowded trees already competing for water. Recently, more than 120 million trees have prematurely died because of drought and bark beetle infestations, according to the Forest Service, providing more fuel for future fires.

California is trying to collect itself at the end of its most destructive and deadliest wildfire season. But recovery is not just about donating to relief efforts and rebuilding homes. It’s also about creating a new culture in the state, one that respects the role that carefully planned fires play in preventing disasters.