FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Lessons From the California Wildfires

Photo Source U.S. Department of Agriculture | CC BY 2.0

The recent wildfires in California make me feel even more worried about the fate of anyone whose homes are built in the woods.  California has experienced the 9 of the largest fires in its history in the past two decades, but large fires have occurred in many other western states during the same period.

What is going on? Are there too many dense forests due to fire “suppression” as some like President Trump suggest or is something else going on? Keep in mind more than half of all the acreage burned in the West has occurred in non-forest vegetation like chaparral, sagebrush, and grasslands.

Therefore, it’s questionable to suggest if we only thinned the forest we would see fewer large fires.

Furthermore, under extreme fire in weather, you cannot stop a wildfire. There is much anecdotal and scientific evidence for this.  The most severe fires occur in previously logged forests.

For instance, the Camp Fire which destroyed the town of Paradise began in an area which had burned a mere ten years before, and was salvage logged.

What drives massive wildfire is drought (California is in the midst of a thousand-year drought), high temperatures (CA had the warmest summer in 127 years which of course dries out all vegetation), low humidity (at the time of ignition there was extremely low humidity of less than 5 percent), and finally the most significant factor in all large fires is wind.

The wind was pushing the wildfire at a rate of up to 1 football field a second! Indeed, within 12 hours, the fire traveled 17 miles and had burned 55,000 acres!

Anyone who believes that thinning the forest or prescribed burns would stop a blaze under these conditions is sadly misinformed.

If you see photos of Paradise, one notes that there are many green trees, indicating that the actual wildfire did not enter much of the town. What burned the city down were embers blown on to flammable surfaces of which there were far too many in Paradise. Burning homes put out much higher heat and embers than a forest blaze. With propane tanks and other burnable materials, Paradise burned down house by house in a domino pattern.

What’s going on here? Well first, we are building communities in the fire plain, and like the floodplain of a river, sooner or later, homes will burn.

But the bigger factor as the above statistics about drought, temperature, wind, and so forth reveal is a strong climate/weather signal. With the warming of the Arctic, there is a weaker temperature gradient between the pole and equator. This temperature change causes the Jet Stream to weaken and wobble more resulting in the near rainless fall experienced in California, and a longer “fire season.”

Some suggest this is the “new normal.” It’s the new “Abnormal” because it is entirely due to human burning of fossil fuels and CO2 admission into the atmosphere.

Extreme weather means extreme fire behavior. The idea that we can influence fires by logging the forest is delusional. Beyond the fact that thinning and even prescribed burning can often increase flashy fuels like grass and shrubs that rapidly grow back on such sites, there is the probability factor. Studies have demonstrated the odds of a fire encounter a treated forest stand in the time when it “might” provide some benefits is extremely small-about 1-2%. And the chance that a fire burning under extreme fire weather will encounter a treated stand is many times smaller—well below 0.1%.

The only strategy that has been shown to work most of the time is the reduction of the flammability of homes and community. But these measures must be mandatory. If you put a metal roof on your home or clean needles from your gutter, but your neighbor does not. If the neighbor’s house ignites, your house may still burn.

In the long run, the only measures that will successfully change the “abnormal” conditions are for society to reduce Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

Without such changes, we will see many more Paradise tragedies.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
David Yearsley
Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
Andrew Levine
Silver Linings Ahead?
John Kendall Hawkins
FrankenBob: The Self-Made Dylan
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Deutsche Bank Fined $150 Million for Enabling Jeffrey Epstein; Where’s the Fine Against JPMorgan Chase?
David Rosen
Inequality and the End of the American Dream
Louis Proyect
Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic
Thom Hartmann
How Billionaires Get Away With Their Big Con
REZA FIYOUZAT
Your 19th COVID Breakdown
Danny Sjursen
Undercover Patriots: Trump, Tulsa, and the Rise of Military Dissent
Charles McKelvey
The Limitations of the New Antiracist Movement
Binoy Kampmark
Netanyahu’s Annexation Drive
Joseph G. Ramsey
An Empire in Points
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
COVID-19 Denialism is Rooted in the Settler Colonial Mindset
Ramzy Baroud
On Israel’s Bizarre Definitions: The West Bank is Already Annexed
Judith Deutsch
Handling Emergency: A Tale of Two Males
Michael Welton
Getting Back to Socialist Principles: Honneth’s Recipe
Dean Baker
Combating the Political Power of the Rich: Wealth Taxes and Seattle Election Vouchers
Jonah Raskin
Edward Sanders: Poetic Pacifist Up Next
Manuel García, Jr.
Carbon Dioxide Uptake by Vegetation After Emissions Shutoff “Now”
Heidi Peltier
The Camo Economy: How Military Contracting Hides Human Costs and Increases Inequality
Ron Jacobs
Strike!, Fifty Years and Counting
Ellen Taylor
The Dark Side of Science: Shooting Barred Owls as Scapegoats for the Ravages of Big Timber
Sarah Anderson
Shrink Wall Street to Guarantee Good Jobs
Graham Peebles
Prison: Therapeutic Centers Or Academies of Crime?
Zhivko Illeieff
Can We Escape Our Addiction to Social Media?
Clark T. Scott
The Democrat’s Normal Keeps Their (Supposed) Enemies Closer and Closer
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
In 2020 Elections: Will Real-Life “Fighting Dems” Prove Irresistible?
David Swanson
Mommy, Where Do Peace Activists Come From?
Christopher Brauchli
Trump the Orator
Gary Leupp
Columbus and the Beginning of the American Way of Life: A Message to Indoctrinate Our Children
John Stanton
Donald J. Trump, Stone Cold Racist
Nicky Reid
The Stonewall Blues (Still Dreaming of a Queer Nation)
Stephen Cooper
A Kingston Reasoning with Legendary Guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith (The Interview: Part 2)
Hugh Iglarsh
COVID-19’s Coming to Town
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail