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Why It Burns

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

Wildfires have been in the news a lot lately. Whole towns have burned in California, Oregon, and British Columbia. The fire seasons are growing longer, busier, and more destructive each year, and the fires that are burning are massive. It’s becoming a nightmare for both residents caught in the path of the firestorms and firefighters trying to beat them down.

Of course this brings up the usual debate: is it climate change or lack of logging and grazing? Nothing constructive ever comes of this debate, it’s just a lot of people screaming insults and pointing fingers. (Like every other damn issue that comes down the pipe today.) When it really boils down to it, they are both wrong. The Western fire situation is caused by a complicated set of circumstances that can’t be boiled down to one single cause, no matter how passionate people get about it.

1. Past Fire Suppression Policies After a huge fire outbreak in the Rocky Mountains in 1910, which wracked up a death toll rivaling the Paradise, California, fire of 2018, new and severe fire suppression policies were put into place. All fires were put out, no matter how large or small and no matter where they were burning. Unfortunately, most Western ecosystems are adapted to fire on the landscape and didn’t respond well. Less fire tolerant plant species began to take over, including several non-native species. Thick forest duff covered the ground, making for hotter and more destructive fires that were harder to fight. Dead trees known as ladder fuels, which allowed ground fires to climb into the crown, became common place. I remember walking through one of these fire-suppressed forests during college, where the litter and plant growth was so thick you couldn’t even walk without getting tangled up and sliced open, and there was a disturbing lack of wildlife. This tinderbox forest is not the only one still in existence today. They litter the West like landmines waiting for an unsuspecting foot.

2. Land Management Issues This is not really the fault of the agencies responsible for managing our Western wildlands, nor is it the fault of “radical environmentalists” preventing land management. A lack of logging and grazing is not the issue, and, for those who subscribe to this side of the debate, can actually create more fire danger if not handled properly. No, the problem is lack of proper funding due to short-sighted politicians. The right-wing isn’t interested in land management and the left-wing simply doesn’t pay attention to non-urban issues. Either way, the problem is the same. Lack of funding means lack of resources, and lack of resources means there is no way for agencies like the Forest Service or Park Service to thin and burn overgrown areas, two things that are sorely needed right now. This leads to neglect of our forests, more overgrowth that started with fire suppression, and more destructive fires in the future.

3. Explosion of Invasive Species These are not always non-native species, either. During the fire suppression days, white fir and incense cedar took over in forests normally adapted to open settings and frequent ground fires. This crowded out and seriously stressed resident trees and has led to more destructive fires, which lead to the extinction of the natural trees rather than their renewal. But non-native species are also increasing fire danger. Cheat grass invasion is responsible for several large wildfires that have burned in our deserts and grasslands in the last decade. These more frequent fires are leading to the possible extinction of natural sagebrush steppe ecosystems, which are not adapted to regular fires. In California, the eucalyptus tree has taken over, burning hotter and more intensely than native vegetation, and so are several non-native grasses that have taken over the Los Angeles area. Only creating more fuel are the invasive Japanese beetle in the Sierra Nevada and several exotic tree diseases that are now ravaging California’s oak groves. All this leads to standing fuel, heavier fuel loads, and, you guessed it, more dangerous wildfires.

4. Increasing Wildland-Urban Interface It seems to be human nature to move into a dangerous area and then curse the local hazard when it shows its face. Those living in fire danger zones are no different. Unfortunately, poor urban planning and increasing populations in the West are leading to more and more houses and infrastructure in fire-prone areas. A prime example is the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, a development built in the middle of an area that burned as late as 1964, only to be devastated again in 2017. An increasing interface not only makes houses more vulnerable to burn, it creates more fire danger from the human activities that take place in the zone. Activities such as landscaping and brush burning, target shooting, campfires, use of fireworks, smoking, and vehicle use are all sources of wildfires. In other words, the more people, the more fire, and the more damage from said fires.

5. Firefighting Challenges Wings are actually falling off planes! You heard me right. A good deal of equipment used by the public agencies in charge of fighting these wildfires is so old it is literally falling to pieces in the field. Worse, firefighters themselves are often underpaid, overworked by longer and more hectic fire seasons, and unsupported when they truly need help. Suicide rates are high among this profession for a reason. Yes, more funds are being made available for wildfire efforts, but most of this focuses on suppression. There is pretty much no support for prevention and management before the fact, something that would be just as beneficial to our fire crews as it is to the rest of us. Shortsightedness is probably the biggest firefighting challenge of all.

6. Lax Fire Laws The regulations and penalties put into place concerning wildfire don’t match the crime. Not anymore. People do stupid things and light up the landscape. Houses are burned, people are killed, and entire lives are turned upside down in the process. And the fire bug who caused the problem in the first place? Released with a slap on the wrist and a miniscule fine. That is, if they get prosecuted at all. The perpetrator of a fire that raged near Lee Vining, California, is known but law enforcement can do nothing about it, so they continue to walk as free and selfish as they’ve always been. Then, of course, there is the drone problem, where firefighters and law enforcement can only sit there and watch until a drone flies away as it interferes with communications and the fire burns onward. California tried to pass legislation about this problem but it was vetoed by the governor, so the issue continues. We are not living in the sixties anymore. Fires are larger and deadlier today. It’s not simply an inconvenience for those in the path of the blaze, it could mean their blatant murder. The laws need to be changed to reflect the devastating consequences of the crime.

7. Public Fire Education Of course, the best way to prevent some idiot from lighting a fire is to make sure they aren’t an idiot in the first place. Most people out there aren’t lighting fires because they lack intelligence, nor are they generally malicious. It’s because they don’t know any better. Sure, Smokey Bear comes to rural schools and holds presentations in campgrounds and national parks, but how many times have you seen him in the city? A major source of wildland fires is urban visitors who come to areas they don’t understand, ignore burn bans, don’t know how to put out campfires, drive their big SUVs into dry grass, set off fireworks and hold explosive gender reveal parties, and generally do things that cause sparks. In most cases it’s because they simply lack the necessary education to not do these things. Campground and ranger programs are great and I’m all for them, but people need to be educated on the matter before they ever set foot in the wildlands. Also, as I demonstrated with the wildland-urban interface, a lot of those fires are lit at home for the same reason. While some organizations like Cal-Fire have urban education in place, it is sorely lacking in most Western locations, and that is where it’s most needed.

8. Transportation Issues Many wildfires start along roadways and there are a lot of reasons for this. Aside from poorly maintained and malfunctioning semi-trucks, many country roads are neglected and rough, causing popped tires and, you guessed it, sparks. Worse, in many places today there are no safe pull-offs along the highway due to general lack of roadway clearing, allowing those areas to become choked with dry grasses and saplings. One car fire, one overheated engine or brake, one spark, and a new wildfire is born. Some of the large fires that have burned in southern California can trace their origins to this situation, as can the destructive and appropriately named Carr Fire near Redding. A little infrastructure funding and road clearing goes a long way toward preventing future blazes.

9. Failing Electrical Infrastructure If I were to go the route of the debaters and put the blame for Western fires on one single cause, I would not pick climate change or lack of logging, I would choose this. There is a lot of focus today on going green and renewable energy development, but pretty much none on improving the electrical infrastructure that’s supposed to support said energy. While California has been forced to do some improvements, the rest of the western states are severely lacking in this area. A good percentage of manmade fires in the West are started by electrical infrastructure. In California alone there is the Dixie Fire, Camp Fire, and the 2017 big blow-up. Then there was the 200,000 plus acre fire in Washington state in 2020 that was ignited by a downed powerline. Some power poles in use today are over 100 years old, equipment is elderly and improperly functioning, and there is next to zero corridor clearing in rural areas. Worse, when fires do ignite, the paying customers take the heat, not the companies responsible for the lines. (See poor fire laws again.)

10. Climate Change It had to be mentioned eventually, and it is a major source of the West’s growing wildfire problem. With climate change come drier conditions, hotter summers, changes in wind currents and behavior, and much more dry lightning, which occurs in places it doesn’t normally happen, like the Santa Cruz County incident of 2020. Areas not prone to fire are now burning, including the outskirts of the Portland, Oregon, metro area. Weather conditions of today also mean that fires are lighting more easily. California’s largest wildfire in history started because a man hammered a stake into the grass. Using this example, you can also see that the fires that are burning are larger and more dangerous, which is only exacerbated by heavier fuel loads and the myriad of other problems I’ve listed so far. I’m not denying the role played by climate change at all, I’m simply saying that we are doing things to make that situation even worse, whether we curtail our carbon emissions or not.

11. Outdated Fire Management Policies Because… climate change! The fire policies used by managing agencies today were developed in the 1980s or even earlier, before climate change was a thing, before our roads and electrical lines went to shit, before the build-up of the wildland-urban interface, and before we had the mess that we have today. Climate change, in particular, has a bad effect on these old policies. The Lyons Fire started in a “let burn” area of the Sierra Nevada wilderness and was expected to burn itself out in two weeks. It burned for three months in wind-downed wood and standing drought trees, smoking out communities to the east and ruining their summer economies, which are based entirely on tourism and outdoor recreation. The Tamarack Fire was a benign looking lightning strike in a rocky wilderness area that was expected to burn itself out in days. Instead, unusually hot, dry conditions and high winds fed it into a devastating fire that forced evacuations and burned homes, bringing a different kind of heat upon the Forest Service. An update of the fire management policies to align with current conditions (and the funding needed to implement said policies) would’ve prevented both of these disasters and many others that have raged in the West.

12. Current Political Climate No changes in favor of fire management will occur in our messed up political climate. As stated elsewhere, funding is a political issue and funding is needed to put out fires and manage fire prevention projects. The extreme polarization that has grown in our two political parties has caused a lot of the country to stagnate, mostly due to fierce and fruitless debates and the undoing of every policy of the last administration simply because it isn’t on party lines. There is a lot of finger-pointing and name-calling but little to no action, or the action that is taken is an ineffective shill job designed to placate critics rather than doing any real good. We are forced to deal with the radical agendas of the right and the fantasy idealism of the left, neither of which are rooted in reality. Most of the politicians in charge are city people and easterners and none of them understand the situation as we see it out here in the West. Perhaps the worst wildfire problem we have is the political climate, and with the growing circus act that is the Republican Party combined with the ineffective play-it-safe route of the Democrats, it does not bode well for the Western fire situation in the foreseeable future.

The truth of the matter is that the Western fire conundrum can’t be solved by attacking one problem over the other. We must fight climate change, this is true, but we also need to fund our forests and parks so they can continue their management efforts, update their policies, and properly equip their firefighters. We need to fix our roads and electrical infrastructure, we need zoning laws to slow the wildland-urban interface, stricter laws for people who light fires (including electric companies), and proper public education to prevent people from igniting said fires in the first place. And, most importantly of all, we need to take political action, to tell the politicians in charge that we are tired of circus acts and idealistic pandering. We must tackle these twelve problems together in a joint effort if we are ever to see an end to the current Western fire conundrum.

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