Why Forest Management Isn’t The (Only) Solution To California’s ‘Explosive’ Wildfire Problems

In this June 11, 2019 firefighters keep an eye on a prescribed burn in Kings Canyon National Park, … [+] Calif. The prescribed burn, a low-intensity, closely managed fire, was intended to clear out undergrowth and protect the heart of Kings Canyon National Park from a future threatening wildfire. The […]

On Tuesday, President Trump again denied the scientific consensus that climate change will exacerbate wildfires, falsely asserting that wildfires will be tamed by “cooler” conditions.

While wildfires are the norm in California during the fall, they have become increasingly intense – especially in the past five years. In August 2020 a series of lightning strikes ignited several record-breaking fires that merged to create fire complexes that together have burned over three million acres. And, this does not account for the more than two million acres burned in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and other western states.

The president continues to dismiss climate change as a source for these unprecedented natural disasters and instead insists that California’s shoddy forest management strategies are to blame. While land management is certainly an important component of wildfire oversight, federal agencies – the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management – manage over half of the forested lands in California. State and regional governments own only three percent and the remaining 40 percent is privately owned. Because the state cannot enforce management on federal lands, any lapse is the result of federal oversight, not missteps made by the state of California.

While the president’s comments about clearing forest floors are short-sighted (and a strategic diversion from the role of climate change), they are not entirely false. Historically, forest fires were a common occurrence in California – sparked by lightning or tended by Indigenous communities, for whom this was and continues to be both a pragmatic and cultural practice (my piece on the “Good Fire” stewarded by Indigenous people during last year’s wildfires focused on the utilitarian purpose, and omitted that it is also an important tradition). These controlled burns happened frequently and were more contained, such that they removed the dried kindling that have fueled the recent spate of wildfires.

After the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and a century-long fire suppression campaign that neglected the knowledge and customs of Indigenous peoples, we have an enormous build-up of tinder that is helping wildfires propagate. While Indigenous-led fire management may be part of the solution – it is an enormous task to apply controlled burns to the 20 percent of California that requires it. And, it belies the most important factor driving these increasingly “explosive” wildfires – climate change.

Already this year, California has experienced back-to-back heatwaves and record temperatures that ignited and further fanned wildfires that have defied expectations established by previous disastrous wildfires. And, the duration of fire season in California is increasing, while the window for conducting prescribed burns is decreasing. And, subsequent years will likely be worse. Indeed, fire suppression & gender reveal parties are responsible, but climate change multiplies the impact of these factors. Certain aspects of climate change have already been “locked in” based on our previous decisions concerning fossil fuels.

To stave off the worst – of wildfires, but also climate change as a whole – we must dramatically curb greenhouse gas emissions and transform the way we live our lives.

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