4 ways to stop the deadly cycle of wildfires

Eric Holst

I mourn for the several dozen killed, hundreds missing, and thousands displaced and suffering from the ongoing wildfires in California.

Living in Sacramento, I’ve grown used to living with fire in the surrounding hills and mountains, and with the hazy weather and poor air quality conditions that come with it. But seeing the frequency, intensity and death toll of fires continuing to climb, I refuse to accept these catastrophes as the new normal – or as Gov. Jerry Brown put it, “new abnormal.” 

While it’s true that it could take years, decades or more to curb climate change or improve forest health, we can’t afford to sit around and wait. There are at least four immediate steps we can take to stop, or at least slow down, the deadly cycle of fires.

1. Let fire and forestry experts lead the way

Pointing fingers and spreading misinformation about fires is a waste of time. We need to let the wildfire and forestry experts be the ones who tell us what’s causing fires, what’s fueling them, and what is needed to stop them from spreading or occurring in the first place.

Science, not politics, will help us solve the wildfire problem. So policymakers at the federal, state and local levels must come to the table with a willingness to learn, collaborate and try new techniques.

2. Modernize state fire policy

Fire policies have evolved over the last 30 years from an emphasis on suppression at all costs to a focus on managing wildfire at the landscape level. But they have not adapted fast enough to deal with rapidly changing environmental conditions, or with population growth and sprawling development patterns.

What is missing is a comprehensive state fire policy that is grounded in the best possible understanding of future fire dynamics. To achieve this, policymakers must convene experts to assess current vegetation conditions and predictive capacity, and then develop a plan and budget to strengthen that capacity as quickly as possible. 

Increased predictive capacity would help fire managers prioritize vegetation management techniques including thinning, prescribed fire, brush removal and fire breaks. There also needs to be a new focus on grasslands, oak woodlands, chaparral and scrub that are full of fine fuels that can whip fires into a frenzy, like we’ve seen in California this past week.

3. Change the culture of fire

We need to better understand the barriers and risks associated with prescribed fires, and work quickly to reduce both so that it can be applied more readily to prevent unmanaged wildfires. In particular, we need to better understand legitimate air quality concerns associated with prescribed fires and find ways to balance those risks with the much more acute health risks associated with heavy wildfire seasons.

Geological and infrastructure realities – which have left California with a vast network of hanging power lines – as well as strict air quality regulations have kept prescribed burns at a relatively low level in the state compared with regions such as the Southeast.

There are ways to work around such challenges and to educate people about smoke inhalation hazards.

4. Promote fire-safe communities

Keeping people in urban, suburban and rural residential neighborhoods safe from fires means we need a comprehensive strategy of fire-calming treatments in the wildland-urban interface. Innovative zoning and building code requirements and strict enforcement of fire safety standards are also needed.

We can scale up such practices by recognizing and rewarding communities and municipalities with the best plans for living with fire. One possible reward could be increased access to public funding for communities that want to expedite implementation of their fire safety plans, which will – in turn – inspire other communities to do the same.

All the while, we must double down on efforts to slow the real driver of the fire catastrophes in California: climate change. My state, as you know, is already a global leader in that area.

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