Why California Didn’t Burn Up This Summer

The Dixie Fire charred 900,000 acre plus acres in 2021. The fire burned through numerous portions of the forest that had been thinned or even clearcut as seen in this photo. Photo George Wuerthner.

A December 20th article in the New York Times declared California had a quiet fire season. The report explained why far fewer acres were burned in the Golden State this past year.

Wildfires burned about 362,000 acres this year, compared to 2.5 million acres last year and a historic 4.3 million in 2020. In other words, 2022 burned only 8% of the charred acreage in 2020.

The main take-home message from the 2022 California season is how much climate/weather influences wildfire burn acreage. For instance, in 2020, massive lightning storms ignited numerous blazes, but in 2022, there was little lightning.

There have been several articles that suggested the 2022 fire season ended by early November. Why? Because of rain. Again weather/climate dictated the length of the fire season.

Even the largest blaze in New Mexico history, the 2022 Calf/Hermit Blaze was quelled by heavy rains, not fire fighting efforts.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, got at least part of it right when she said far fewer acres burned because of “a combination of well-timed precipitation and favorable wind conditions.”

But even she is unable to connect the dots.

She goes on to say: “We still saw a level of severity that is outside of the historical range of variability,”

This ignores that the climate is also outside of the range of variability. California is experiencing the worst drought in 1200 years. Yet most fire ecologists and researchers can’t acknowledge that climate/weather controls all wildfires.

There was as much fuel in California in 2022 as in 2021 or 2020, when millions of acres in the state were charred. What was different?

The answer is evident to anyone who doesn’t have an agenda to log the forests—the climate/weather in 2022 was unfavorable to fire spread.

Yet we continue to hear the mantra that if we only did more fuel treatments (euphemism for logging) and more prescribed burning as the Indians did, we would not see large fires.

In a recent interview, Scott Stephens, a fire ecologist at UC Berkeley, attributes the lower fire season to prescribed burning.

He says, “It does feel like we’re getting beat up—losing homes, structures, lives, and ecosystems. But research shows that the outcomes are positive if you do prescribed fires and restoration thinning. There is a path forward.” But the area treated by prescribed burns, whether those set by agencies or tribal people is insufficient to make much difference in the big scheme at a landscape scale.

While the state saw fewer acres burn this year than in the last two years, California still recorded comparable numbers of fire incidents. As a result, this year’s fires were much smaller on average.

Was this because there was less fuel in 2022 than in 2021? No. But the main difference was the weather hindered fire spread.

The effectiveness of fuel reductions is quesitonable if climate/weather is unsuitabler for fire. Many areas, like the landscape within the Dixie Fire that burned over 900,000 acres in 2021, there were numerous charred areas where thinning or even clearcuts had occurred.

Researchers have found that mechanical treatment (euphemism for logging) was ineffective in reducing fire spread and severity. However, past wildfires and, in some cases, prescribed burns sometimes did lessen fire severity.

The other problem is that fewer than 1% of blazes encounter fuel treatments.  A recent review of fuel treatment effectiveness at the landscape scale concluded:  “based on the information in the literature, we are unable to answer if treatment type and configuration affect intensity, rate of spread, and patterns of severity for subsequent wildfires or enable more effective wildfire response.”

Yet logging and prescribed burning advocates continue to sell the idea that fuels are the issue. I do not have a problem with prescribed burning per se. In some strategic situations like, say, around sequoia groves or the edge of communities, it might help firefighters to slow fire spread. Still, there are many reasons why prescribed burning is not a panacea that can preclude large wildfires.

Another problem with the entire fuel management argument is that it is based on the premise that high-severity fires are undesirable or “outside of the historical variability.” There are several things wrong with this concept.

First, high-severity blazes and the dead snags and down wood they produce are critical ecosystem elements. The input of down wood might only occur once every few centuries. Still, this wood remains on the site for centuries providing wildlife habitat, nutrient storage, carbon storage, and physical components of streams and forest ecosystems.

Second, it fails to see that the historical conditions that created today’s forests do not exist anymore. Vegetation is adapting to the new realities of warmer temperatures, extreme drought, and variable precipitation. So we find that drought, insects, and even wildfires are killing trees. But this reduces the density of stands and selects for individuals with greater resilience to these natural mortality factors. This is precisely what you would want to see. It’s evolution at work.

Fuel reductions (i.e., thinning and logging) interfere with this natural evolutionary process by  indiscriminately removing trees from the landscape. The loggers have yet to learn which trees have a genetic trait that might enable them to resist bark beetles or survive drought. And logging assuredly removes carbon from the forest and releases it into the atmosphere, ironically contributing to even more significant climate warming that creates new “ historic” conditions.

High-severity fires are not something to be controlled or excluded from the landscape; instead, they are a critical ecosystem element.

Finally, the idea that fire suppression has led to unusual fuel buildup again ignores the role of climate/weather in fires and fuels. During the last century, the years between 1940-the 1980s were unusually cool and moist. Indeed, glaciers were growing in the Pacific Northwest during this period.

What happens when you have cool, wet weather? First, you have fewer ignitions, and what ignitions you do have do not spread as much. Also, you frequently get higher tree seedling survival which would contribute to naturally dense stands. Thus, the so-called period of “successful’ fire suppression was more a consequence of climate/weather conditions than anything the Forest Service did to control blazes. Indeed, Nature was very good at suppressing fires.

This demonstrates that the main factor driving wildfires is climate/weather, and fuel treatments are, for the most part, a waste of time and energy.  Since we cannot predict either weather/climate or where a fire might occur, rather than spending billions on thinning/logging or even prescribed burns, we would be much better off hardening our communities so they can stand a reasonable chance of surviving a blaze.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy