Scorched property, injured or missing persons, deaths—fires in California are taking lives and destroying homes at an alarming rate. This past wildfire season, hundreds of thousands of residents escaped ahead of some 7,579 blazes. Do authorities focus too much on evacuation and too little on fire prevention? Could drastic measures—including fighting actual fire with actual fire—help people survive?
Everyone from lawmakers to celebrities is weighing in on why California’s wildfires have become, as President Donald Trump says, so “massive, deadly, and costly.”
Trump blames “gross mismanagement of the forests” for the fires. Environmentalists blame climate change. Here are some of the reasons almost everyone agrees on:
PROBLEM: There are more houses in or near fire-prone grasslands.
SOLUTION: Create more buffers. Control where people build houses.
Parks or irrigated farmland around housing developments can hold off some wildfires—like the vineyards that helped keep last year's wildfires in California wine country from spreading further. Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, worries communities are literally playing with fire when deciding where to build. “You get these growing cities pushing out—housing developments going right up into brush and wooded areas,” she says. “One ignition on a bad day, and all that is threatened.”
PROBLEM: Overhead power lines can spark in high winds.
SOLUTION: Bury electric power lines.
This solution is easier said than done. A San Francisco Chronicle article cites a cost of “well over $100 billion” to bury power lines in the area of California served by Pacific Gas & Electric. That colossal cost would fall on homeowners, so it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.
PROBLEM: A build-up of trees, grasses, and brush creates lots of highly flammable material.
SOLUTION: Controlled burning (purposefully lighting fires to remove shrubs and dead wood that can act as fuel) is proven to guard against wildfires.
U.S. Forest Service statistics show a record 129 million dead trees in California in December 2017. Most analysts agree that dead tree fuel contributed significantly to the 2018 California wildfires. Jon Keeley of the U.S. Geological Survey disagrees. He says that since most of California’s recent deadly fires were in grasslands and brushy chaparral, “Thinning isn’t going to change anything.” (See first problem above!)
After the most destructive wildfire season on record, California is finally putting its money where President Trump’s mouth is: Outgoing Governor Jerry Brown signed a new law. It provides $1 billion over five years for fire protection—including forest management, meaning more tree clearing and controlled burns. Perhaps this will subtract fuel from the fires.