California wildfires continue to blaze in one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory. While California fires are nothing new, government data show the damage has been substantial.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says that since August 15, when California’s fire activity accelerated, there have been at least 24 fatalities and more than 4,200 structures destroyed. (Ten people have also died in Oregon, CNN reports.) So far in 2020, California wildfires have burned more than 3.2 million acres of land—an area roughly the size of Connecticut.
As the fires rage, politicians argue over what (and who) is to blame.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti say climate change is the culprit, while President Donald Trump says the fires are the result of poor land management.
These answers are not mutually exclusive, of course, and evidence suggests that both poor land management and California’s high temperatures and arid climate have played a role.
While addressing California’s extreme temperatures is difficult, especially in the short term (unless you’re a member of the X-Men named Storm), evidence suggests immediate solutions are available to improve state and federal forestry management.
Citing the fires scorching the West, The New York Times last week ran an article that stated it was time for government agencies to rethink their fire management policies.
“For over a century, firefighting agencies have focused on extinguishing fires whenever they occur. That strategy has often proved counterproductive,” the Times reports. “Many landscapes evolved to burn periodically, and when fires are suppressed, vegetation builds up thickly in forests. So when fires do break out, they tend to be far more severe and destructive.”
This was precisely what economist Jairaj Devadiga pointed out in a 2018 FEE article that examined why California’s wildfires historically have been much worse than those of Baja California, where fires are allowed to burn naturally at low intensity, regularly clearing out forest floors and limiting the spread of large conflagrations.
Though the Times doesn’t mention Baja California, the paper does endorse the Mexican state’s strategy of allowing fires to burn naturally to eliminate vegetation, pointing out that experts attribute the tactic to the more successful fire prevention approach found in the Southeastern United States.
Scientists who study wildfires agree that allowing forests and grasslands to burn periodically — by, say, intentionally setting smaller fires under controlled conditions — can be a more effective way to clear out vegetation. In Ponderosa pine forests, for instance, low-level fire can nurture ecosystems and help prevent destructive large-scale fires from breaking out.
This already occurs in the Southeastern United States, where officials use prescribed fires to burn millions of acres each year. While the region still sees destructive blazes — like Tennessee’s drought-fueled Great Smoky Mountains fires in 2016, which killed at least 14 people — experts credit the use of controlled burns with sparing many Southeastern communities from fire damage.
Contrary to Western states, “fire is widely accepted as a tool for land management in the Southeast,” fire scientist Crystal Kolden told the Times. This is in stark contrast to California, where just 50,000 acres were intentionally burned in 2017. (As a point of reference, academics estimate between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres of forest burned annually in prehistoric California.)
Fortunately, it appears that political leaders are beginning to recognize the problem. In August,
Newsom signed a memo acknowledging California needs more preventive fire.
While this is a step in the right direction, federal regulations could prove an obstacle to the strategy.
As Sam Rutzick at Reason point outs, the Clean Air Act of 1990 treats the smoke from a controlled burn as a pollutant (in contrast to a wildfire allowed to burn) and the National Environmental Policy Act requires “a couple-thousand-page document analyzing every single conceivable impact to the environment that the (burn) plan might have.”
Ownership vs. Stewardship
The wildfires are a reminder of an unpleasant reality: the governments are poor stewards of the environment.
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