A photo of a forest on fire

California Wildfire, courtesy FEMA


California Wildfire, courtesy FEMA

The Climate-Fire Nexus, Explained

This year's wildfire season is one of the worst on record, and the reasons are clear. Until we can rid climate science of politics, no one will be safe.

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The thing about firefighters is that they’re pretty pragmatic folks. They don’t tend to go in for partisanship or hyperbole, which is why when they say things like “we’ve never seen weather patterns like this,” everyone, irrespective of political party, should sit up and take notice. Earlier this year, CalFire Chief Ken Pimlott told me he was “astounded” by the number of fires there have been each week in his state. “You know what? I’m going to use the word ‘astounded,’” he said. “In the past few years, we’ve had maybe 150 to 200 fires a week during the most intense part of the fire season. This year, we’re seeing weeks with 400 or more.”

The Thomas Fire, currently ripping its way through Ventura County, has burned more than 90,000 acres in just a few days, and has now been joined by multiple Los Angeles County fires,  including the Rye, Creek, and Skirball Fires, which have already burned more than 20,000 acres and are currently threatening the nation’s second-largest city. Thousands of people have been evacuated and thousands more face power outages, heavy smoke, and potential evacuation as the Santa Ana winds are predicted to reach up to 70 mile-an-hour or more winds, at which point the fires would be unstoppable. These are just the latest extreme blazes to light up the West Coast this year, the result of a combination of factors: a wet winter that produced a bumper crop of fuel for fires, the state’s preceding years-long drought, record high temperatures for long stretches of time, political inaction on climate adaptation, plus one new and concerning climate shift.

“Nighttime is usually when we can get the upper hand on these fires because there’s typically higher moisture,” Janet Upton, deputy director of communications for CalFire, said. “That isn’t happening as much this year.”

If you think it’s strange to see so many fires in December, you’re right and wrong. In recent years, the fire season has been getting longer and longer, the result of hotter, drier temperatures. As early as April this year, we’d already lost 2 million acres to fire across the United States, the amount lost during an entire fire season in the 1980s. A study out last year found that human-influenced climate change had nearly doubled the amount of acreage lost to fire since the mid 1980s.

Our approach to fire in general has also contributed to more and more catastrophic fires. Namely, we’re really not down with any amount of fire, particularly since we started building in what ecologists call the wildland-urban interface. In the West, almost half of all housing units reside here. “The hundreds and sometimes thousands of houses destroyed during any particular wildfire aren’t houses scattered in the woods. They tend to be houses that are in suburbs, not homes directly embedded into the wildland,” says Jack Cohen, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Over several years of studying fire damage, he’s found a consistent theme. “What we found were totally destroyed houses surrounded by green trees.” That means our understanding of fire is flawed. “Our perception that a ball of fire comes rolling through a neighborhood leaving it to waste is not what’s happening because that would have consumed the trees,” Cohen says.

He adds that we also tend to mistakenly equate the heat required to destroy a home with that required to burn a human. “What gives us pain and injury from that heat is significantly less than what it takes to ignite wood, or even char it.”

The general belief that all fires are intense enough to set our homes ablaze has led to a no-tolerance policy toward fire that Cohen says has paradoxically made wildfire season worse. Instead of allowing a number of low-intensity fires to burn off a good number of trees as seedlings, we’ve all but eliminated such fires. That allows more trees to grow taller, creating a large and connected tree canopy that helps fire spread. “We’re working against ourselves,” Cohen says.

This approach not only increases the likelihood of catastrophic fires, but also drives up the cost of fire-fighting to the point where forest managers have no budget left to do any of the sort of management practices that would actually prevent fires.

Each year, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior spend an average of $3.4 billion to fight these types of fires. That’s three times what they spent annually back in the 1990s. The agency now spends more than half its budget dealing with fires, compared to 16 percent in 1995. “The fires are sucking our funding from just about everything else we do,” says Tom Blush, with the USFS Pacific Northwest region.

The agency sounded the alarm back in 2015 with a report detailing the costs of wildfires and asking Congress to establish a FEMA-like fund for catastrophic fires. Congress appropriated $700 million that year, under The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, but it ran out at the end of the year and a permanent fix is yet to be found.

Meanwhile, with so much of the forest management budget going toward firefighting, the USFS has been unable to stay on top of everything from climate adaptation programs to more immediate concerns like pruning trees or addressing various viruses and parasites. “In a sense, you know, we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” says Rachel Cleetus, senior economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’re fighting these fires but creating greater risk for future years.”

With wildfires again making headlines, The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is back in the news as Oregon senator Ron Wyden has reintroduced it. But if the focus remains on fighting fires, not dealing with the various factors that cause them, from poor management to poor public outreach (according to Pimlott 95 percent of California fires are caused by people, many of them just careless) to climate change, which this Administration has sworn to do absolutely nothing about, the fires will continue. And they will get worse.


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