Now that the rain has finally closed the chapter on California’s vicious 2020 fire and smoke season, a little reflection is in order from a longtime resident. Especially as friends and family ask me why I continue to live here.
First, some context. In 2001, I road tripped from Connecticut to California to live the dream. The attitudes were perpetually optimistic, epic nature was accessible year-round, and anyone could build houses anywhere. The magical possibilities were infinite.
Nearly 20 years later, it’s clear the California vision sold to me — and millions of others — was an unsustainable, false bill of goods. A heaping dose of climate change-induced factors soured the contract even further. But I’m not holding a grudge. Because California was meant to burn. Let’s not feign ignorance by the fire and smoke events of the past five years. A quick trip to the metaphorical library could have taught any of us that:
- “Between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California.” [source]
- “California was a very smoky place historically [and]…it’s still probably less than what used to be burned before Europeans arrived.” [source]
- “The Forest Fires Emergency Act in 1908…[ensured] that no wildfire be allowed to burn,” kicking off a century of fire suppression. [source]
- “California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to re-stabilize in terms of fire.” [source]
Our construction in wildland urban interfaces 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. This toxic mist is dangerous, and not just for Californians given national dependencies on our agricultural output: 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 ash is nestling itself into the soil, water, and all the way to your organic avocado toast.
“Just move” is neither viable advice for the 40 million people who live here, nor in our national best interest.
So what now for those of us that call California home?
Pick Your Poison
When the smoke hit this summer — so early, and so ferociously — I immediately fantasized about an East Coast move. It’s where I grew up and where much of my extended family lives. The Berkshires or the burbs of Boston? Perhaps a small town in Vermont? It’s less expensive too! So many idyllic options, where shall we begin?
Then my wife took down my beautifully painted delusion, point-by-point.
We’re all trapped indoors at some point.
The most painful part of living through thick smoke, pandemic notwithstanding, is being stuck inside and having to N95-mask-up when leaving home. She reminded me that from late November (or earlier) to early March (or later), the weather forces most everyone indoors for some period of time. From the ice storms of Ithaca, New York to the frozen tundra of Freeport, Maine, everyone has to do their time inside.
Escape hatch anyone?
During the majority of smoke days in the Bay Area, if it gets brutal in intensity or duration, there are often escape locales — be they for a few hours or a few days, toward the shores of the Pacific or elsewhere — without having to get on an airplane (indeed, not everyone has the privilege of leaving town). Winter isn’t “optional” elsewhere as it is for many Californians.
California doesn’t own natural disasters and cataclysmic climate realities.
California’s wildfires, impending mudslides, and years-long droughts (and inevitable earthquakes) have become media mainstays. As far as lived experience for the majority of Californians, though, it’s still a magical place the majority of the year. Our easterly friends elsewhere often experience their own version in the form of hurricanes, super storms, etc.
We do love the east coast for so many reasons. But ultimately she successfully talked me off the ledge (amidst the thickest of the smoke in September) — and reinvigorated my love of California living — by dispelling my move myths. As we agreed and most all of us know, things gotta change. And change now.
The good news: we have the power to right the ship.
Action Required: Adaptation (and Mitigation)
This all starts with three simple-but-not-so-simple actions California policy-makers and people can take. I’m no expert, but that’s never stopped me from weighing in before.
1. Burn Baby Burn — Prescribed, Of Course.
In 1935, the “10AM Policy” as it became to be known was enacted, mandating that fires must be “controlled by 10am the morning after their initial report” — and this policy wasn’t changed until 1978. So for the past 100 years we have been suppressing fires, and even when policy did change 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), it did so without any real progress.
Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, ~30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to ~13,000 acres annually. For context, more than 4 million acres have burned this year alone in the state.
It’s time to ramp up our prescribed burning into the hundreds of thousands of acres per annum, at a minimum. Native Americans had been doing it for millennia before the Euros came along. And the data now tells us that smoke from prescribed burns is healthier and more predictable, 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.
Coordination on this type of responsible burning has understandably been a major challenge, with land stewardship cutting across private landowners, city, regional, state, and national park/forest land (unintended consequences of well-meaning policies like the Clean Air Act haven’t helped). Donald Trump’s quip that we need to “rake more leaves” actually wasn’t that far off the mark — except for the fact that it was his administration’s responsibility, with nearly 60% of forests in CA under some type of federal stewardship. Thankfully, he’s leaving office and we’re progressing together at the state and federal level.
The onus is now on California political leadership (looking at you Gavin Newsom) to begin aggressive prescribed burn activity beginning in early 2021, to budget accordingly, and to lead the collaboration with federal authorities. State action should supersede any local complaints about smoke from controlled burns. If we don’t have prescribed burns up and running by March, we’re already too late — and that’s less than four months from now. Let’s get on it.
2. Goodbye WUI, Hello Managed Retreats
Driving through the Santa Rosa hills in July, I was astonished at how many new homes were being constructed on previously torched sites surrounded by forested land. They were rebuilding directly in the fire zone. And sure enough, those areas burned again just a couple months later. Because the idea that previously burned land won’t burn again for a decade or more is now demonstrably false. We have to stop building right up against and into forested land, otherwise known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). And when these burn in the future, we should not be rebuilding there.
This should be an acceptable casualty of our current reality. Californians have been building in dangerous places for hundreds of years (if you’ve hiked The Lost Coast, you’ve seen washed out towns first hand), but now we can no longer afford to do so. 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).
It’s no longer acceptable for millions of Californians to be breathing plastic-infused smoke because people in Santa Rosa wish to rebuild in the heart of a fire zone, or because we can’t remove barriers to market-based affordable housing solutions serving people not returning to Paradise. Of course, we may see a “smoke bird” migration away from California in future falls — but for the masses, responsible development away from the WUI will be critical for year-round living. We can do this, too.
3. Education & Entrepreneurship
California is as liberal a state as it gets. For that, I love it and live with the flaws (we really could use more political diversity). But we can no longer let climate change activism consume all our time, resources, and energy. At its worst, this activism is a form of climate fatalism — and is a copout, counterproductive, and factually incorrect. Yes, our climate is changing dramatically due to humans. Yes, it is to blame for a good deal of what we see today. But to sideline our century of fire suppression as a major — and fixable — contributor to our current state is irresponsible (Gavin Newsom, looking at you again here). We must own up to our past mistakes.
We also need an educated electorate. 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 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.
When armed with facts, we can also better unleash private enterprise on this massive challenge across a wide spectrum of industries. How might we better detect fires in their earliest stages? How might we create lower cost, higher quality, easier-to-install air filtration systems for millions? How might we reimagine insurance models and programs that encourage responsible development and managed retreats? Let’s find and fund more entrepreneurs solving pressing challenges in how we both mitigate and adapt to our new realities. Admittedly, I’m biased here given my line of work.
Never Underestimate California
There are a multitude of concurrent challenges we’re facing down here in California: an affordable housing crisis, rampant homelessness, energy grid stability, water shortages, a global pandemic amplified by pathetic federal leadership, and of course the subject of this post. In the midst of it all, Californians continue to lead the country and the world in too many ways to count, not the least of which is our positively mood-altering natural beauty.
If you live here, it’s time that we learn to accept smoke as part of our reality just like others live with their seasonal challenges. But we can design our way forward through action.
We can and must adapt. I’m confident we will.