In California, rethinking who ‘owns’ wildfire

Sacramento, Calif.

Wildfire has illuminated Norm Brown’s life. In 1983, he joined California’s primary firefighting agency, known as Cal Fire, and during the next three decades, he worked thousands of fires, protecting lives, homes, and land. He retired as a deputy chief in 2017, and since then he has stayed close to the flames – by choice and by chance.

As a member of the Mendocino County Prescribed Burn Association, a volunteer coalition of community members and retired firefighters, he oversees controlled burns on private property to reduce the excess vegetation that feeds fires. As a resident of Willits, a small town northwest of Sacramento, Mr. Brown watched this summer and fall as the largest wildfire in state history ravaged nearby Mendocino National Forest, burning more than 1 million acres.

A blitz of dry-lightning strikes in August sparked that blaze and hundreds of others in Northern California. The fires forced tens of thousands of residents from their homes, and when more infernos ignited in Oregon and Washington in September, the entire West appeared aflame.

The smoky skies crystallized the limits of the aggressive wildfire suppression policy that prevails among federal and state firefighting agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire. The century-old strategy of dousing most fires as quickly as possible – born of good intentions to save people and property – has wrought forests, grasslands, and shrublands teeming with overgrowth primed to burn as the climate turns warmer and drier.

For Mr. Brown, who devoted his career to snuffing out wildfires, the dystopian spectacle of 2020 has offered nature’s strongest warning yet for the West to reconsider its approach to tending natural lands. “We’ve had a lack of land management, and that’s not a problem that’s going to fix itself,” he says. “So we’re going to have to work together to figure out the answers.”

The breadth of destruction has amplified calls from fire and forestry experts for greater balance between suppression and stewardship to revive ecosystems and lower wildfire risk. The shift will require fire response agencies to collaborate with private land managers and prescribed burn associations, and will demand comparable effort by communities and individuals to adapt to the realities of living with fire.

The West has endured three decades of deepening hardship as ailing forests, climate change, and unrestrained development force a reckoning with wildfires gaining in scale and intensity. Five of the six largest wildfires in California’s history have occurred this year, and the 4.2 million acres burned – more than double the state’s modern-day record set in 2018 – have claimed 31 lives and destroyed 10,500 homes and buildings.

Malcolm North, a research ecologist with the Forest Service in Northern California, suggests that healing the land will depend on collective resolve.

“There’s a partisan divide that has crept into the wildfire discussion. One side says it’s all due to forest management, the other side says it’s all due to climate change. The truth is it’s a combination of both,” he says. “The time for pointing fingers is long past.”

A lopsided emphasis

The Forest Service embraced suppression as its guiding principle after the “Big Blowup” of 1910, when a firestorm scorched 3 million acres and several towns across the Northwest, and state agencies later adopted the ethos. Forestry scientists assert that the massive fires in recent months provide the latest evidence of a lopsided emphasis on suppression that has caused the Forest Service to fall behind on restoring 80 million acres under its care.

Naturally occurring wildfires sustain woodlands and grasslands by thinning dense tree stands and accumulated vegetation, enabling new grasses and plants to sprout and older, more fire-resistant trees to thrive. The ongoing disruption of that cycle has harmed biodiversity and contributed to California witnessing, since 2003, 14 of its 15 largest wildfires on record.

Norm Brown, a former deputy fire chief with Cal Fire, California’s primary firefighting agency, is shown on a prescribed burn in 2016. “We have had a lack of land management, and that’s not a problem that’s going to fix itself,” he says.

“People see a big fire and say, ‘It’s an act of God.’ That’s not the case,” says Mr. North, who teaches forest ecology at the University of California, Davis. “What we’re seeing is the result of a century of land management decisions that created all that fuel to burn.”

Researchers ascribe the bias toward suppression within fire response agencies to an entrenched culture that frames wildfire as a war that can be “won” with more personnel, equipment, aircraft, and technology. Cal Fire’s funding for suppression hit $890 million in fiscal year 2018-19, a nearly tenfold increase from eight years earlier. The Forest Service’s firefighting budget more than quadrupled during that span, reaching $2.6 billion.

Rising temperatures and falling moisture levels have stretched the West’s annual fire season by 75 days since 2000, and drought and a bark beetle epidemic have killed 150 million trees in California. As the sprawling “fire-industrial complex” struggles to subdue infernos that burn hotter and faster, funding lags for land management programs that could ease reliance on suppression over time. 

The Forest Service allocated $435 million for prescribed burns on national lands in 2018, or one-sixth the amount for suppression. Cal Fire spends $80 million on fire prevention and forest health programs, less than 10% of its firefighting costs.

The comparatively modest funding delivers decidedly modest results. The federal government – owner of more than half of California’s 33 million acres of forest land – applies controlled fire on 50,000 to 60,000 acres a year statewide. Cal Fire’s prescribed burn crews treat 20,000 to 50,000 acres on public and private lands.

The figures contrast with the findings of one study that estimated the state needs to treat 20 million acres through controlled burning and vegetation thinning to reduce its wildfire threat.

Mr. Brown, the former Cal Fire deputy fire chief, explains that the duty to preserve public safety depletes resources. At the same time, unless federal and state agencies focus more on land stewardship, he foresees a future as combustible as the recent past.

“If we put money toward year-round crews to do the difficult work of fuels treatment, that would make a big difference,” he says. “We have to get more balance with our fire management.”

The need for more fire

A sense of urgency about redressing the disparity has taken root among public officials in recent months after years of mounting devastation – and decades of warnings from wildfire experts.

Three U.S. senators have proposed $600 million in funding for prescribed burning initiatives to aid wildfire prevention in the West. Another Senate bill would authorize three large-scale land management projects to restore fire-adapted forests.

In California, the state and the Forest Service have agreed to treat 1 million acres of wildlands a year by 2025 through prescribed burning, mechanical thinning, and limited logging.

Canyon walls are shrouded with smoke from a prescribed burn in Kings Canyon National Park in California on June 11, 2019. Naturally occurring and prescribed wildfires can sustain woodlands by thinning accumulated vegetation and enabling older, more fire-resistant trees to thrive.

national strategy to reform wildland fire management established under President Barack Obama in 2014 nurtures similar federal-state alliances between public agencies and private land managers, including environmental groups, ranchers, timber interests, and Native American tribes. The initiative identifies wildfire and prescribed fire as essential to the resilience of forests, grasslands, and watersheds.

Land managers have blended natural and controlled fire to foster healthy ecosystems in Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite national parks in California. Fire ecologists first performed prescribed burns in the parks a half-century ago after noticing that extinguishing wildfires upset habitat and wildlife equilibrium, and they soon returned to allowing natural fires to spread.

The “let-burn” tactic is far more fraught when a blaze sparks closer to communities, and likewise, fire officials remain wary of conducting controlled burns near populated areas. Their concerns trace to complaints about smoke from residents and potential liability, even as prescribed fires seldom escape containment.

Yet in the view of Stephen Pyne, the author of more than a dozen books on wildfire, the West’s explosive infernos illustrate the need for more fire on the landscape – let-burn and prescribed alike. He weighs the possible risks against 8 million acres incinerated across the region since August. 

“We have to take advantage of wildfire the best we can and use prescribed fire when and where it makes sense,” says Mr. Pyne, a professor emeritus of environmental history at Arizona State University. “There will be fire and smoke either way. The choice is what kind of fire and smoke we want.”

The path forward for California could entail reviving cultural fire practices that existed widely in the pre-1800s, when at least 4.4 million acres burned each year before the influx of Euro-American settlers. By comparison, as a result of unrelenting suppression, wildfires burned only 250,000 acres a year from 1950 to 1999.

Flames flickered on precolonial lands from lightning strikes and intentional fires set by Native Americans. Tribes applied low-grade fire to remove grasses and scrub to grow plants for food, making baskets, and luring game, and to clear wildfire fuels around their villages.

Lightning ignited a blaze in September that swept through the Karuk Tribe’s ancestral territory near California’s northern border. The fire consumed 157,000 acres, feasting on a forest choked with grasses and brush and trees, and leaving behind ashes and anguish amid the rubble of 200 homes.

The disaster bore the sadness of centuries for Bill Tripp, a deputy director in the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. He has absorbed repeated rejections from federal and state officials to expand cultural burns on the tribe’s land to a scale that could reduce wildfire danger. He looks upon the charred forest as a tragic argument in favor of Western tribes conducting larger burns vital to honoring their heritage and renewing the land.

“We want to do prescribed fire because our communities have had too much uncontrolled fire,” he says. “That’s what the entire West has to do right now.”

Unrealized potential

The national wildland fire strategy devised in 2014 details the importance of educating community members about the benefits of putting fire on the landscape. Lenya Quinn-Davidson has committed to that cause as director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. 

Two years ago, she co-founded the West’s first prescribed burn association in Humboldt County, along the forested North Coast. A fire area adviser with the University of California system, she has traversed the state since then to help another dozen associations to organize.

Larry Luckham/Courtesy of University of California

Lenya Quinn-Davidson co-founded a prescribed burn association two years ago in Northern California’s Humboldt County, the first organization of its kind in the West. The state now has more than a dozen such associations, in which private citizens use controlled fire to revive ecosystems and lower wildfire risk.

The groups attract landowners and renters, ranchers and programmers, college students, and retirees. The volunteers receive training from fire ecologists and retired firefighters, learn state and county regulations for lighting fires on private property, and take part in instructional burns.

Ms. Quinn-Davidson, who refers to her work as “almost bordering on activism,” promotes a democratic approach to wildfire prevention and land management. “For so long in the western U.S., fire has been locked in a black box,” she says, drawing a distinction with the Southeast, where public acceptance and use of controlled fire run far higher. “There’s been a belief that only certain people – the federal and state agencies – are qualified to do this.”

Cal Fire provides protection across 31 million acres of privately owned wildlands. As a practical matter, the department lacks the manpower to treat fuels on that much land, and Ms. Quinn-Davidson contends that enlisting trained community members as custodians of fire would lighten the agency’s workload.

Unlike Cal Fire’s burn crews that make sporadic visits to an area, residents can monitor the land season by season, setting small-scale fires when conditions allow. The Humboldt County association has treated more than 1,000 acres, completing burns of three to 350 acres that have targeted brush, grasses, and shrubs, along with dead and downed trees, thinning the kindling that powers wildfires.

The willingness of Cal Fire or air district officials to issue burn permits varies by county. Mr. Brown, who recalls his own skepticism when he belonged to the agency, has gained new perspective since helping launch a prescribed burn association in the county where he lives.

“I understand that hesitation by Cal Fire – you’re responsible if anything goes wrong,” he says. “But the associations are a way to build that relationship between the fire department and the community.”

Wildfire experts speculate that splitting up fire response agencies and forming stand-alone forestry departments would improve land stewardship. The prospects for institutional change of that kind appear small, and Ms. Quinn-Davidson regards the growth of prescribed burn associations and training programs as a more realistic and sustainable remedy.

“It’s hard for any agency to be a steward of such huge pieces of ground,” she says, “and there’s a huge amount of unrealized potential at the local level.”

“It’s about cooperation”

The historic bushfires that ignited in Australia in September last year burned 59 million acres before rains arrived in March. A national inquiry into the catastrophe analyzed the profound effects of climate change and mismanaged forests on fire risk, and emphasized that people need to learn to coexist with wildfire.

Investigators outlined preventive actions familiar to Max Moritz, a wildfire expert with the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research has explored living with fire, a concept that reflects a sense of individual and communal responsibility for wildfire preparedness.

“Fire isn’t going away,” he says. “We have to accept that here in the West and then take the right steps in our communities.” 

Wildfires in California have killed 150 people and burned more than 36,000 homes and buildings since 2017. The state’s elastic land-use planning standards magnify the threat by spawning unchecked growth in the wildland-urban interface, broadly defined as areas where development meets natural lands. Studies show that about three-fourths of the homes razed by wildfire statewide fall within those zones, where 11 million people live.

The housing density in fire-prone areas feeds the spread of flames as wind-blown embers flit between homes. The state has attempted to break that chain reaction by requiring the use of fire-resistant building materials for new homes since 2008. Another regulation mandates that homeowners clear dead vegetation within 30 feet of houses to deprive fires of fuel.

The policies adhere to national guidelines for creating fire-adapted communities grounded in mutual awareness among residents and local officials about reducing wildfire danger. But a dual lack of compliance and enforcement has diminished the impact of the laws. Mr. Pyne, the environmental historian, considers this year’s wildfires a chance for state officials to push a message of shared accountability.

“Cal Fire could tell people, ‘Even if we had twice as many water tankers and trucks and firefighters, we couldn’t protect you,’” he says. The cold splash of truth would remind residents of their role in public safety. “It’s about getting out of the mindset that wildfire prevention is someone else’s job.”

A coalition of environmental groups has asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to allocate $500 million in next year’s state budget for wildfire resilience and recovery initiatives. The funding would boost prescribed burning programs and fire prevention efforts to aid homeowners and communities.

A project that could serve as an example for other fire-prone communities has begun to take shape in Paradise, a town of 27,000 people in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Two years after the deadliest fire in state history killed 85 people in and around the town, local officials are acquiring vacant land on its outskirts to form a wildfire buffer zone, seeking to avert future disasters.

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Working with Mendocino County’s prescribed burn association, Mr. Brown has found people eager for an education in wildfire. Their interest encourages him. He knows better than most that, for all their powers of suppression, fire crews can fight only so many flames. The infernos of 2020 have shown with harrowing force that everyone in California must recognize the obligations of living with fire.

“We’re all affected by wildfires, so let’s try to help ourselves and each other,” he says. “It’s about cooperation.”

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