Why the West Coast is on Fire

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Climate change is one of the major reasons California, Oregon, and Washington State are up in flames. Changes on a collective and individual level can help thwart further destruction.

Fire is celebration, warmth, food, and safety. It’s also dangerous, deadly, fast-moving, and currently ripping through millions of acres in the west. A confluence of deadly environmental and human events has caused the current rash of fires moving through more than three million acres throughout California, Oregon, and Washington. Experts say that it’s not going to stop without significant social, cultural, and environmental change.

“Fire touches so many different aspects of our society,” says Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, and an adjunct professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Financially, safety-wise, and carbon-wise, you’re only as safe as your neighbor in many situations. It really does come down to learning together how to coexist with fire, because no one person can do much about it on their own.” Moritz also runs the Moritz Fire Lab, which focuses on studying wildfire behavior globally and locally.

This event is a huge capstone right now. It can’t be viewed in isolation. This is the trajectory we are on.

Albert Simeoni is a professor and department head in the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He and his team have built an advanced mobile wind tunnel that can test how specific conditions affect the burn of particular vegetation. He says that, in general, we do have a better memory for the names of hurricanes than we do for the largest and most devastating fires in recent U.S. history. With names like the August Complex Fires, Cameron Peak Fires, and the Holiday Farm Fire, these massive fires are occurring more and more frequently, Simeoni says. “It’s a bit like what we talk about with 100-year floods,” Simeoni says, “We have more and more extreme fires. Instead of having the one per century, it’s happening every three years.”

A significant contributing factor for this seemingly sudden rash of extreme fires: climate change.

“If you asked me if this fire season was a one-off, I’d say no,” says Glen MacDonald, a John Muir Memorial Chair of Geography, Director of the White Mountain Research Center and a Distinguished Professor at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. “The recent fires don’t tell you that at all. They are the smoking gun, and this is a part of the long term trajectory that covers the western U.S. This event is a huge capstone right now. It can’t be viewed in isolation. This is the trajectory we are on.”

Over history, the American public and national and local governments have primarily taken the approach that wildfires that don’t impact human life or property are simply “falling trees,” not a cause for alarm. Fire is, after all, a part of the natural order of the world. Fire can be cleansing for the forest and the environment. There are upsides to naturally occurring forest fires, which can arise from high temperatures and lightning strikes. These fires can distribute seeds to add necessary nutrients to the soil, clean out dead and dying underbrush, and kill off insects that damage entire ecosystems, according to National Geographic.

Yet, according to the Insurance Information Institute, as many as 90 percent of wildfires are started by humans. Causes can range from campfires, discarded cigarettes, and the burning of debris to social media stunts like fireworks at gender reveal parties. Downed power lines and aging electrical grid equipment are also a source, along with arson. Mix in an environment of mistrust and increasing political polarization, and the spread of false information on social media platforms, plus the current Covid-19 pandemic, and you have a perfect storm of crisis in the American West.

What makes fires so prevalent in the American West?

There are three aspects to fire: heat, fuel, and oxygen. Moritz says that fire professionals use a second triangle called the Fire Behavior Triangle to determine how dangerous, fast-moving, and extreme a wildfire can be. The elements of this triangle are topography, fuel, and weather. The combination of the three elements in specific areas helps fire specialists determine whether or not evacuations are needed and whether the fire might spread or will simply burn itself out.

Fire season in the west lasts from June until September, and it’s characterized by a combination of dry, hot weather, high winds, and, typically, human action. In the case of the current fires still burning the west, the El Dorado fire near Yucaipa, California, was started by a gender reveal party that used fireworks to announce the sex of a child, a trend that even the founder has vociferously spoken out about ending, immediately. An arsonist was arrested in Oregon for contributing to the Alameda fire that’s still burning. As of the most recent reporting, more than 20 people have died in the fires, and both Governor Newsom of California and Governor Brown of Oregon expect more.

There are two trends that fire researchers and management teams look at when trying to determine how bad a fire season might be, according to Professor Simeoni: Time since the last large fire, and the wildland-urban interface. Most large, naturally-occurring wildfires (those not started by humans) happen once every hundred years or so, much like the 100-year floods or superstorms (like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy) that occur around the country. The wildland-urban interface is the area where human infrastructure exists in an area that is highly prone to wildfire.

“When you put people in the fire path,” Simeoni says, “the level of devastation becomes a combination of the factors. Add in climate change, increasing temperatures, and drought, only make it worse. We have these sprawling suburbs because people like to have land, and they like being in the forest in nature. Yet that means that we are getting in the middle of the path of those fires.”

Climate change is also a significant factor in both the frequency of these massive fires and how much damage they cause. “We know that this pattern of increasingly devastating fires is following the trajectory of temperature increase that we see in California and the Western U.S. We know that the fire weather index has been increasing and the number of days where you have extreme fire weather danger, especially during the shoulder seasons in the fall, has increased,” Professor MacDonald says. “Temperatures are going up, and fire weather is going up, and the intensity of these fires increases.”

The politicization of wildfires

Despite what Republican politicians, including the President, say and think, the experts say that California, in particular, has done a good job of managing its forests, especially in recent years, conducting controlled burns and cleaning out dead underbrush that can spread and intensify wildfires. Many of the current fires, however, are burning in federally-managed parklands. These lands are managed and maintained by the Federal government, not the states.

In fact, according to the University of California’s Forest Research and Outreach center, of the 33 million acres of forest in California, 57 percent is managed by the federal government, 40 percent by private landowners, including families, and three percent by the state. Despite this fact, Trump tried to withhold FEMA funding for the California fires, out of spite, as the state continues to burn.

Add in the fact that there are reports of the U.S.’s wealthiest citizens moving out of cities to the suburbs and, in some cases, the exurbs, and you have several factors coming together to potentially cause an increase in the number and ferocity of fires. Though there’s some debate about how long the remote work and city exodus might last, and some data shows that there’s not much of an uptick in people leaving the country’s cities, fire experts say that the confluence of factors could cause even more frequent and devastating fires.

If we keep on the current path, ten years from now, it might not look like 2020 is a bad year.

“In the short term, this move to the exurbs is going to mean that there will be more ignitions than in the past, especially if we have a lot more people moving to dispersed areas,” Moritz says. “Humans are really good at bringing ignition sources with them. It could mean that in the short term when conditions are ripe, our fall downslope hot dry wind season, we could have a lot more coincidence of ignitions at the absolute wrong time. As people move out into those areas, you are going to get an increase in fire.”

Add to this the politicization of climate change. Trump and other Republicans continue to repeat the idea that climate change doesn’t exist. They also continue to roll back everything from EPA standards to land-use rules at an alarming rate. According to the New York Times, the Trump administration has largely gutted more than 100 different environmental rules. Environmentalists and climate scientists say that these changes will speed climate change.RELATED STORYWhat Happened to the EPA?

Reimagining housing development

While it may seem like there is no good answer for reducing the number of devastating fires, experts say a few things need to happen. The public needs to get better informed about fires and building codes and regulations, especially for suburban and exurban developments.

As Mortiz points out, many people think fires happen “out there” and don’t pose a threat to suburban towns.

“People have been told for so long that that fire is a fuel problem. The truth is that we have that aspect relatively under control. The other issue that is just embedded in people’s minds is that if you build smarter with fire in mind, if you take any of the guidance to heart and codified it, it would somehow become too expensive or limit development and limit housing.”

Housing developments can be constructed to be what the experts call “fire-hardened,” but because most building codes and regulation are locally managed and created by local government, many see these kinds of recommendations on a national or state level as an infringement on their right to build the types of communities they want.

For example, Mortiz suggests that new developments should include buffer areas, either agricultural or open land, and consider how the homes are placed on the land to ease evacuation. In many communities, for example, homes surround a golf course. “What if we put the golf course outside the homes to provide a buffer for fire?” Moritz suggests. “The bottom line is that we are going to be building more homes on fire-prone landscapes, we just are. They’re already fire-prone, and climate change is partially to blame. The needle that has to be threaded is how do we build on the less fire-prone landscape in ways that are sustainable, defensible and escapable,” he says.

What you can do

On the personal front, there is plenty we can do to reduce our climate impact. We can do everything from cut back on our plastic usage to learn to be more zero waste in our consumption. Making even small changes can improve our environment.

Additionally, educate yourself on the risks of fire in your area, when risk is higher and lower, and what you can do to prevent loss of life and environment when a fire starts. As Simeoni points out, Maine may not have had a tremendous fire since the Great Fires of 1947, which destroyed 200,000 acres in the state, but that just means it’s due for a large one soon.

“There is no silver bullet. There is no miracle. We need to implement a set of solutions from vegetation management to the education of the population,” he says. “We have people moving deep into the wildlands, and they are urban people. They have no clue about fire.”

If we work to mitigate climate change, build fire-hardened housing, and avoid wildlands when fleeing the cities, we can perhaps put a dent in this overwhelmingly large, seemingly unsolvable, problem.

“If we keep on the current path, ten years from now, it might not look like 2020 is a bad year,” MacDonald says. “We haven’t changed the trajectory of climate change, and in fact, it’s been made worse. If you thought that the new normal was the 2017 fire season, you would be hit with what we see in 2020. It’s more like we are on a slope that’s sliding faster and faster, and we have to take real action to stop it.”

Read my story at Shondaland.

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Abigail Bassett is a full-time freelance journalist, content creator, and television, video, and podcast host whose work has appeared in publications like TechCrunch, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Fortune, Motor Trend, Shondaland, Money Magazine, and on CNN. Her passion is telling unique stories that change the way we see, interact with, and relate to the world. She is also a Yoga Alliance Registered 500-hour yoga teacher.

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