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Western wildfires: What can we do to make a real difference in the future?

Occasional Observer

“Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

— Smokey the Bear


This year’s Western wildfires started in California but then spread to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and even southern British Columbia and are bigger and more severe than those of the past. Noxious smoke from these fires has made air pollution in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and other West Coast cities worse than that in Beijing or Mumbai, and the smoke drifted to Eastern states, now becoming a serious public health problem, particularly for those with pre-existing medical conditions.

As of early November 2020, an area of California larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined has been devastated by wildfires.

Millions of people continue to move to the  “country”, what is now being called “the wildland - urban interface”, thereby exacerbating the fire problem by making fire suppression more extensive and difficult to accomplish.

Although California and adjacent states have been having large destructive autumnal fires for decades, the situation has gotten worse. Nine of the 10 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in this last decade. During the last 50 years, the fire season has become nearly two months longer. Bark beetle infestations during the past decade have killed over 150 million trees, most of which remain as prime fuel for fires. 

At the same time, larger wildfires have been happening elsewhere in the world, Australia being a foremost example. In 2019, Australian wildfires consumed more than 27 million acres of land.  

Despite Smokey The Bear’s warnings, many forest fires are not from careless  campers but are often the result of lightning strikes or electrical accidents that sometimes occur without accompanying rainfall. Warmer temperatures have produced drier landscapes with drier vegetation, the principal fuel for fires. The 2020 fire season on the West Coast has been especially windy, which abets both fire intensity and spread.

President Trump has said that the huge, intense fires are the result of poor landscape management, the failure of officials to “rake up fallen leaves.” Actually his criticism is not without some merit. The intensity and spread of the mammoth fires is partly the result of longstanding insistence by the various states and the federal government of totally emphasizing fire suppression over fire management. Over time, areas that do not burn tend to accumulate large masses of flammable vegetation, both live and dead, that become prime fuel for fires. 

But Trump’s castigation of Californian officials failed to note that nearly 60% of California’s forest land is under federal, not state, control and funding for the U.S. Forest Service has been woefully inadequate. And as the proportion of the Forest Service’s budget devoted to fighting fires has increased, even less money has been available for fire prevention.

However, controlled burning to mitigate the intensity and spread of wildfire is a valuable technique for reducing damage. The Australian aborigines successfully practiced controlled burning for centuries without triggering the massive, out of control fires now plaguing that continent. But to work successfully, controlled burning needs cool, damp weather and low wind speed to avoid having the fire get out of control. And the hazards of the resulting toxic smoke itself, from either accidental or planned fires, should not be minimized.

There are some other measures that help reduce the spread and severity of wildfires. Adaption of fire-resistant construction techniques for all new buildings in fire prone areas such as inflammable roofing and siding, insulated windows, and protection from drifting embers (that blow into homes through vents) can help, as does removal of excess vegetation, both live and dead, near buildings and safe storage of propane or other fuel tanks. It would also help if regulations prevented nearly all new development in or near wildlands.

Communities need to learn to live with fire, as they have in the past, although it’s much more difficult now as there are so many more people — and many more fires. No amount of firefighting resources will avert the next big wildfires, but with intelligent efforts they can be made less destructive.

But the most significant thing that we can do, and it will not show positive results for some time, is to help arrest climate change. The higher temperatures, the droughts, the storms are the underlying forces that have made wildfires so much more severe and damaging. President Trump’s recent remark to a California official who tried to explain to him the effect of global warming on the fires that, “It’s going to get cooler” was completely untrue. The climate is continuing to change for the worse, getting warmer and more troublesome. To arrest this ominous trend. we need to act decisively, and soon.

Lakeville architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon writes frequently on environmental matters.

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