Lives and homes have been lost and entire towns evacuated. Online, we see a multitude of “this is because of such-and-such” explanations, each accompanied by an explicit or implied solution. But there is not one straightforward cause, and thus there is no one solution, no silver bullet.
Indeed, if there is one thing to know about the wildfire crisis, it is that there are multiple things to know. Several geographically distinct factors have combined to create the crisis, and thus addressing any one of them by itself will not solve things everywhere, nor solve things totally.
Fuel accumulation resulting from a century of fire suppression has unquestionably worsened fire regimes in many forests of the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada and upland Southwest. But fire suppression is largely irrelevant to fire behavior in the chaparral shrublands where many of California’s most destructive wildfires occur.
Similarly, expansion of housing into fire-vulnerable areas along the so-called “wildland-urban interface” (WUI) accounts for much of the loss of lives and property and of the increasing costs of fire suppression. As new subdivisions are built in forest and chaparral, homes are put in harm’s way and firefighters are constrained to fight fire there. But this problem is by definition spatially limited to the WUI and contributes only to the impact of the fires, not to their size.
Finally, climate change is worsening wildfires virtually everywhere. It is no coincidence that the deadly fires now burning in California are happening while the state experiences record heat. High temperatures dry out the vegetation, and hot, dry fuels catch fire more readily and burn faster and hotter, thus contributing to the unprecedented behavior of recent wildfires.
Furthermore, hotter climate has contributed to extensive tree mortality, whether directly through heat stress or indirectly by rendering trees vulnerable to bark beetles. Dead forests, of course, are readily burned. The data unequivocally demonstrate that temperatures are rising, and wildfires are responding to that change.
It is also necessary to note the factors that are not responsible for the severity of recent wildfires. Contrary to frequent assertions, environmental regulations limiting logging are not responsible for over-dense forest fuels. The dense growth that worsens wildfire is made up of saplings and small trees that are unattractive to loggers, and in most cases commercially unviable to harvest. Nor can we attribute wildfire severity to failure to rake the forest floor. While raking fuels away from residences is certainly prudent, the western national forests alone comprise more than 150 million acres, an expanse that makes any sort of raking infeasible.
Recognition of the multiple contributors to the wildfire crisis should enable us to move past the focus on simple solutions — one size does not fit all, and reducing fire impacts will require a mix of approaches that match the geographic and ecological complexity of fire regimes.
Such a mix will certainly include more extensive use of prescribed fire, because it provides the only cost-effective means of reducing fuels over wide areas in western forests where the terrain often precludes mechanical thinning. “Cost-effective” does not mean inexpensive, however, and this will require both substantial financial investment and the recognition that deleterious air quality impacts from the fires we set are a trade-off for avoiding the worst impacts from megafires.
Critically, however, even widespread fuels reduction is only helpful in those forested settings where fuel accumulation is an issue. Thus conflagrations like the current Bobcat Fire that has burnt over 100,000 acres of chaparral in Southern California would be unaffected. On the other hand, in Southern California fire prevention can make a big difference, as humans are responsible for virtually all of the fires that occur during the worst fire weather there. In this context, investments like hardening the power lines that have sparked many fires during such weather are well worthwhile.
Discouraging development in the WUI, while politically thorny, may help to reduce losses from wildfire. But again, while this may be important in terms of firefighting costs and property loss, it will not change the size of the fires.
What then, should we do? Rather than seeking “the” solution, we will have to recognize the need to invest in multiple solutions, appropriate to the varied factors that are relevant in different regions. And we will need to realize that the one thing that will help across all regions is to address climate change. That will not resolve the other problems, but without addressing climate change, other solutions will be insufficient.
Dr. Jacob Bendix, a former USFS firefighter, is a professor of Geography and the Environment in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University where he teaches pyrogeography and researches the occurrence and impacts of ecological disturbances.