Wildfire Safety Starts With Communities, Not Logging Forests

Fire in Siskiyous, northern California. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Another harrowing fire season and devastating losses of lives and homes sound an urgent alarm that California’s wildfire policy — focused on logging forests in the backcountry — isn’t working. Tragedy after escalating tragedy demands that we change course.

The good news is that a road map exists for fire policy that truly protects communities. Step one: Make houses and communities more fire-safe. Step two: Stop building new developments in fire-prone areas. Step three: Take strong action to fight climate change.

For years, state and federal wildfire policies have promoted logging of our forests. Under overly broad terms like forest management, thinning and fuels reduction, these policies do the bidding of the timber industry and entrenched agencies that are invested in cutting down trees. Yet, as more money has poured into logging, we’ve witnessed the unprecedented loss of lives and homes.

The reality is that no amount of logging can stop fires. In fact, it can even make fires burn hotter and faster. The 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the Butte County city of Paradise spread most rapidly through areas that had been heavily logged, and we’re seeing the same patterns in this year’s fires.

study covering three decades and 1,500 fires, co-authored by one of my colleagues at the Center for Biological Diversity, found that the most heavily logged areas experience the most intense fire. That isn’t surprising given that cutting down trees creates more exposed, hotter, drier conditions and promotes the spread of highly flammable invasive grasses.

Moreover, many of California’s fires — including half of this year’s burned acreage — have occurred not in forests, but in chaparral, grasslands and oak savanna. For at-risk communities across much of the state, logging is completely irrelevant to the fire threat.

Perhaps most importantly, the science is clear that weather and climate are key factors driving fire behavior. Hot, windy, dry conditions are prolonged and worsened by the climate crisis. They make fires more likely and harder to suppress. It’s during periods of extreme climate-driven fire weather, like that we’re experiencing now, that the most community destruction has occurred.

To protect our communities, we don’t need more logging, which harms ecosystems and releases carbon into the atmosphere, intensifying the climate crisis and extreme fire weather.

Instead, research and experience show that the most effective way to protect homes and communities from wildfires is to treat houses to make them more fire-safe and to stop building in fire-prone zones.

In vulnerable communities, this means retrofitting homes with fire-resistant roofing, putting ember-proof screens over exterior vents, installing roof sprinklers and trimming vegetation in the defensible space surrounding homes. It also means improving fire warning systems and evacuation routes and providing community fire shelters.

For new communities, we must stop developments in fire-prone areas that put more people in harm’s way. Sprawl in high-risk zones plays an important role in increasing fire risk because 95% of wildfires in California are ignited by human sources.

Although we know what works, California keeps treading the same ground, putting its focus and funding into forest management instead of the community-centered fire safety solutions that do the most to save lives and homes.

There is no magic wand, or chainsaw, that will stop wildfires. But there is a key question that can put Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators on the right path: What actions will do the most to make communities safer?

The clear answer is prioritizing strong action to combat climate change, funding proven home safety retrofits and to stop building communities in harm’s way. The path to safety starts at our own front door.

This oped first appeared in the SF Chronicle.