California Megafires Are Solvable
The basics on how we got to now, why it matters for all Americans, and how we can fix it together.
It’s 10:30am on Monday, July 26th 2021.
I step into an idyllic blueberry patch with my daughter, and it hits me: an unmistakable whiff of wildfire smoke.
This would be expected out west. But I’m in Pittsfield, Massachusetts — and the Air Quality Index (AQI) is hovering around 160, a level at which everyone can experience health effects (and for members of sensitive groups like children and the elderly, more serious ones). Megafire smoke — and the fires themselves — from states like Oregon, Washington, and California is now having a national, on-the-ground impact.
How We Got To Now
Let’s start with facts on The Golden State, which I’ve called home for most of the past 20 years. We know Californians are feeling the harsh realities of megafires and its debilitating smoke annually. Where we might diverge is on a shared understanding how we got here and the nuances of our reality today.
Here are the facts:
1. California is naturally combustible.
California was meant to burn, with lower levels of fire smoke an annual fixture in the landscape. For context, somewhere between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned per year in prehistoric California. The Golden State has always been smoky in the fall, and despite what we see today, there is still “probably less than what used to be burned before Europeans arrived.” Perspective: nearly 4.2 million acres burned last year in what felt like a “disaster” year — which it was, given how it burned, but not in acreage burned.
2. 100 years of fire suppression has put us in a precarious position.
Our problems began in 1908 with the The Forest Fires Emergency Act, which “[ensured] that no wildfire be allowed to burn,” kicking off a century of fire suppression. This was exacerbated in 1935 with the 10AM Policy, mandating that fires must be “controlled by 10am the morning after their initial report.” Even when policy did change in 1978 to allow these fires to burn while increasing prescribed burns (i.e. setting intentional fires to clear brush in order to prevent the occurrence of larger, more dangerous fires), progress was limited. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned ~30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to ~13,000 acres. Our debt is now sizable: According to ProPublica reporting, “California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to re-stabilize in terms of fire.”
3. Forests need thinning and “better fire” (and we need better smoke).
We need certain kinds of fire to maintain healthy forests, specifically ones that hit the forest floor and not the canopy. Native Americans had been doing prescribed burns for millennia before the Europeans came along. And the data now tells us that smoke from prescribed burns is healthier and more predictable, while enabling people to plan around the smoke. “The big question [now] is, how do we want our smoke?” asks Jennifer Balch, fire scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Relatedly, our construction in the wildland urban interface (WUI) has surged over the past 30 years as well, altering firefighting strategies and resource allocation to protect structures — and when that protection fails, it’s no longer just foliage burning. Plastics, metals, chemicals, and more now mingle in the ash as well.
4. Climate change hasn’t helped.
“Increasing heat, changing rain and snow patterns, shifts in plant communities, and other climate-related changes have vastly increased the likelihood that fires will start more often and burn more intensely and widely than they have in the past,” says NatGeo’s Alejandra Barunda. Well said. There is a more complex story to tell here, but we will leave that for another post.
The Main Challenges Before Us
Californians who live in the WUI are worried about their livelihoods and their communities burning down. Everyone else is worried about the impact of debilitating smoke for extended periods of time. What are the challenges impeding progress?
- Policy (and other) Roadblocks to Prescribed Burns: Well-intended laws (e.g. Clean Air Act, CARB restrictions which they’re trying to change) continue to have unintended consequences. Californians have been conditioned to reject any/all smoke at *all* times, failing to understand that a Golden State without any smoke was short-lived California dream. We need to learn that lower levels of smoke in the spring will mitigate a debilitating amount in summer and fall. Additionally, it remains challenging for prescribed burn crews/contractors to secure fire liability insurance for those burns, making the scaling of this work to the levels desired untenable in the current environment. We need public will for prescribed burns that translates to political will and action.
- Cross-Border Coordination: California is huge. Coordinating all the things (e.g. thinning, prescribed burning, wildfire detection, general data collection + sharing) across federal (U.S. Forest Service), state (CNRA / CAL FIRE), county, and private land is challenging. We are also now having to deal with “Zombie Forests” that all players should be coordinating on, and they aren’t yet. We need a grand unification on strategy with strong leadership and accountability.
- Budget Increases, in California + Federally: While California is just now allocating real money against the problem (~$1.5 billion for 2021), this funding is not yet sustaining (baseline is a paltry $200 million per year) — and we need it to be so agencies under the California Natural Resources Agency (including CAL FIRE, Fish & Wildlife, State Parks, and more) can execute against multi-year strategies. There are others like Blue Forest, in partnership with USFS, creating financial instruments like Forest Resilience Bonds to drive biomass reduction. On a federal level, we must increase funding by an order of magnitude to meet the challenge of managing the 60% of California’s forests under federal stewardship. Its current ~$50 million allocation for forest management in California won’t cut it (a recent report from The Nature Conservancy estimates we need $5–6 billion per year for the next 10 years federally). We need more funding — a lot of it, to the tune of ~$6 billion per year (half from the State, half federal).
- Data Heterogeneity (Input + Output): While we are still seeking a “physical understanding of the entire wildfire ecosystem process (mitigation, preparedness, and response),” we do not yet have consistency in data input or platform output (three are currently used: California Forest Observatory, Technosylva, and Silviaterra). Planet supplies the majority of the data. Additionally, there are a bevy of early detection tech companies emerging (e.g. Pano) and their place in it all is still emerging. We need a source of truth and visionary plans rooted in a consistent data set.
- Regional Discrepancies & Local (Dis)incentives: Lightning-ignited wildfires + smoke in Northern California forests look different than chaparral sparked, wind-driven fires roadside in Southern California. Most importantly, there are no incentives for fire-prone cities and counties to prohibit building in the WUI. This makes a clear path forward re: resource allocation (SoCal state senators are focused on “people and property” while in NorCal has a broader view that includes forest health given more forest land) and policymaking (special interests, anyone?) challenging. We need swift, smart policy-making to incentivize the right behavior while discouraging the rest.
There are more, interrelated issues here like water, with 65% of the developed water supply in California coming from Sierra snowpack (during winter/spring holding more water than all our reservoirs combined across the state). Additionally, there remain bigger questions today of how we better detect and accelerate wildfire response time without continuing the suppressive tactics that, in many respects, got us here in the first place.
It’s also impossible to address the challenge of the WUI without talking about affordable housing. Contrary to popular belief, many people have moved to the WUI because it is more affordable — and because of that, any type of managed retreat will have to be met with more progressive housing policies in suburbs and cities (as explained by Alex and Ayana).
More systemically, we continue to have a media “climate fatalism” problem. While I’m encouraged by a great deal of nuanced reporting (many articles cited above from ProPublica, MIT Technology Review, SF Chronicle, Forbes, and opinion pieces in The Washington Post), I continue to see eye-popping misinformation in prominent outlets like The New York Times. A widely shared article written by Jill Cowan (“California Fires: Why This Year Is Different”) made no mention of fire suppression as a major contributing factor, and bizarrely and falsely claimed that “burning Redwoods and coniferous forests” was “alarming” (neither Ms. Cowan nor her editors seem to realize that Redwoods cannot reproduce without fire). Another recent article from New York Times opinion editor Joanna Pearlstein makes no mention of forest management, and instead simply states that all we can do is “try to drive less, cut back on our meat consumption and pray the clouds offshore bring rain. And, maybe, invest in goats.”
Poor reporting on the issue can lead to people unjustifiably feeling that this is helplessly out of their hands and entirely due to climate change. It’s not, and it isn’t — this is solvable. We need to see more consultation from experts, and more quotes like this from The Washington Post:
“With the two-year drought here, these are maybe the lowest precipitation levels in California since 1975 or 1976. It means our fuels are incredibly dry. So where we are right now is really about six weeks earlier into our summer.” While climate change has exacerbated such conditions, he said lackluster upkeep of the area’s vegetation has been the main factor contributing to a dire and potentially longer wildfire season that’s been led by the historic Dixie Fire. “I’m still hopeful that we can change the trajectory of these fires,” he said, “but it’s going to take decisive action.”
— Scott Stephens, Professor of Fire Sciences at the University of California at Berkeley
The Good News & What You Can Do
There’s a great deal of progress being made, especially in California (much of which is being led by Jessica Morse at the California Natural Resources Agency). A few highlights:
- Wildfire & Forest Resilience Action Plan. Newsom spun up a task force that produced this action plan. The people I’ve spoken with across sectors, even the most skeptical, believe this is a great start. Read pp 6–8 for the exec summary, it’s worth it. California is apparently “way ahead” of other western states in its planning and progress.
- Budget Allocation. We’ve seen a $536M wildfire resilience funding plan from the state, a $300M+ forest health and fire resilience grant program announced by CAL FIRE, and more “ground up”-level programs from the Department of Conservation’s Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program (RFFC) to other non-profit grants from the Hewlett Foundation and the Moore Foundation.
- Potential Policy Changes. There is an increasing amount of activity in the State Assembly on the housing front that would prohibit building in high-risk areas. These are still early innings, and it is anticipated that local opposition and special interests will hamper (as they did with SB50), but check out SB55 and SB12 (formerly SB182, which many believe Newsom did not sign because of special interest pressure) for more.
- Cross-Border Cooperation & New Federal Administration. Last year California and the U.S. Forest Service announced a partnership of “shared stewardship” over our forest and rangeland. “Since the federal government owns nearly 58% of California’s 33 million acres of forestlands, while the state owns 3%, joint state-federal management is crucial to California’s overall forest health and wildfire resilience.” Makes sense. While the progression of this partnership isn’t clear, the collaboration is at the very least unlocking new funding for CA (“The Great American Outdoors Act, signed by President Trump, will provide critical funding for the Forest Service’s work in California.”).
- Emergent Case Studies (Thinning, Prescribed Burns, and more). The Karuk Tribe (lots here), Moraga Fire Chief Dave Winnaker (here, here), Sierra Institute (here, here), Planet (with the Moore Foundation and again with Fire Chief Winnaker), the Blue Forest work mentioned above, and many others are pioneering a combination of responsible forest management practices with detection. There’s also a good deal to learn from other geographies like Australia, especially from the Mindaroo Foundation.
So what can you do about it right now?
If you’re a Californian, it’s time to write your state legislators to demand (1) more budget allocation, and (2) and dramatic increase in biomass reduction through prescribed burns, thinning, and other forms of biomass reduction. [I’m also part of a small group of concerned Californians creating an advocacy group dedicated purely to this issue, to ensure we get resources where they need to go and to hold our elected officials responsible to progress (we want to see fewer headlines like this, and more transparency on progress) — we’re looking for an Executive Director to drive it all.]
If you live in a state experiencing wildfire smoke from the west (looking at you Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maine, and more), please write to your U.S. Senators and Congresswomen/men demanding more budget for forest management out west.
For all Americans: Even if you’re not experiencing smoke, remember where your food comes from. California is responsible for 90% (or more) of “organic almonds, artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, dates, figs, grapes, strawberries, lemons, lettuce, plums, and walnuts.” That toxic ash is nestling itself into the soil, water, and all the way to your organic avocado toast.
As the west continues to burn with impacts felt around the nation, the time for action is now.
We can do it.
Thanks to so many people for their perspectives informing this including Zach Knight (Blue Forest), Genny Biggs (Moore Foundation), Jennee Kuang (Hewlett Foundation), Will Harling (Director, Mid Klamath Watershed Council), Jonathan Kusel (Executive Director, Sierra Institute for Community and Environment), Bill Tripp (Director, Natural Resources & Environmental Policy, Karuk Tribe), Patrick Wright (Director Governor’s Forest Management Task Force), Brittany Zajic, Tara O’Shea, Leslie Bull, and Monica Schmalenberger (Planet), Mary Nichols (former head of CARB), Jessica Morse (CNRA), and many more. Special thanks to Kim-Mai Cutler and Misha Chellam, as always.