Wildfires of neglect


The government is failing to take care of the nation’s forests. What kind of picture does this paint for the future of climate policy?

A time not so long ago I was in the Boy Scouts. I will never forget one summer camp when my troop and I took a guided hike through the woods and the guide asked us what was wrong with this forest. We were confused by the question. The forest was big and green and beautiful, and from what I could tell, had plenty of wildlife. Racoons, deer, snakes and the occasional black bear would be frequent guests in our camp and we were far from town. What do you mean that there is something wrong with this forest? The trees were too close, the guide explained, and the ecosystem of the forest was very unhealthy. When trees grow too close together fires and disease spread faster. 

The typically iconic views of California’s mountains and cities took a rather dystopian turn this summer when the smoke and flames of statewide wildfires devastated the landscape. This year, from Jan. 1 through Sept. 27, 6,000 forest fires burned through California leaving behind 3.7 million acres of damage. Some of the damage done to our forests will not recover within our lifetimes. If there was a literary foil to the coming climate crisis, the recent Californian wildfires should teach us a big lesson for the policies we enact today.

The great redwoods of the west aren’t the same as the midwestern silver maple forests I’m familiar with. In large, carnivorous forests out west, the ecosystem is built to burn. Put simply, unburned forests create a buildup of underbrush that catches fire easily and spreads quickly. The more crowded a forest, the more likely it is to start and sustain a forest fire. The small needle-like leaves that wilt in the late summer dry season are very flammable. Most pine cones can only release their seeds if heat is applied to its shell. Almost as if fire is essential to the life cycle of these ecosystems. 

So if the fires are so important, why do they keep happening on the West Coast in such an apocalyptic manner? Well, climate change is certainly an easy culprit to blame but doesn’t quite answer the whole story. Warm and dry conditions are the preferred medium for fires and are becoming only more common with each passing year. The real problem isn’t the fires, it’s actually the lack of them. In the forestry world, a prescribed burn is the best way to clean and control forest floors before they become a greater issue in the future.

According to the US Forest Service, prescribed fires refer to the controlled application of fire by a team of fire experts under specified weather conditions to restore health to ecosystems that depend on fire. The best part is, it works really well even if there isn’t a climate catastrophe around the corner. The Native Americans were known to use controlled burns for thousands of years prior to European colonization. However, a more recent example, the Black Hills in South Dakota, goes through a detailed prescribed burn each fall to ensure an accidental forest fire does not endanger the millions of tourists who visit the region each year. 

It is no accident these fires burned so readily out of control this particularly chaotic year. In March, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the so called prescribed fires were cancelled or abbreviated to prevent the spread of the virus. In January, Nature Sustainability published another terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres to restabilize in terms of fire – a space roughly the size of South Carolina. 

The recurring pattern is almost insanity. Paranoid fire suppression is a short term solution to keeping large plumes of smoke from bothering residents and zealous infernos from damaging life and property. As a result these fuels, not too much unlike the Earth’s temperature, are becoming larger in quantity at the SAME TIME! Then the inevitable happens, wind knocks over a powerline or some family wants to have a gender reveal party with explosives and the entire Pacific coast is engulfed in an inferno. 

It may be surprising that the West Coast foresters are not taking the threat more seriously. Although it’s not like the state and federal government are unaware of these risks. Since the early days of the 20th century, the Pacific has been committed to keeping these fires from happening for economic and liability reasons. Since more and more West Coast residents move to the suburbs, and the line between developed areas and wilderness gets blurrier, it’s time for the average citizens to look around and ask where all that government funding for wildfire management is actually going.  

It is clear that in order to take serious steps towards mitigating the effects of climate change, our policies must reflect a balance between written law and practice. Strangely, one of the easiest and most preventable ways to curb our impact on the planet is to make sure our forests stay healthy. Both the shortened control burning sessions and the exponentially increasing amount of land that needs to be cleared after decades of neglect are why 2020’s fire season is only the beginning.

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