The Western United States is enduring yet another devastating fire year, with more than 4.1 million acres already scorched in California alone, at least 31 people dead and hundreds of others forced to flee their homes.
Wildland fires are increasingly following a now-familiar pattern: bigger, hotter and more destructive. A recent Los Angeles Times headline declaring 2020 to be “The worst fire season. Again” illustrated some of the frustration residents feel over the state’s fire strategy.
For decades, federal, state and local agencies have prioritized fire suppression over prevention, pouring billions of dollars into hiring and training firefighters, buying and maintaining firefighting equipment and educating the public on fire safety.
But as climate change continues to fuel dry conditions in the American West, many experts say it’s long past time to shift the focus back to managing healthy forests that can better withstand fire and add to a more sustainable future.
“Fires have always been part of our ecosystem,” said Mike Rogers, a former Angeles National Forest supervisor and board member of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees. “Forest management is a lot like gardening. You have to keep the forest open and thin.”
Federal forest management dates back to the 1870s, when Congress created an office within the U.S. Department of Agriculture tasked with assessing the quality and conditions of forests. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt oversaw the birth of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of public land across the country.
In California, forest management also falls under the purview of the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
Since 2011, Cal Fire has spent more than $600 million on fire prevention efforts and removed or felled nearly 2 million dead trees. In 2018, California set the goal of treating — which can include slashing, burning, sawing or thinning trees — 500,000 acres of wildland per year, yet Cal Fire remains far from meeting that target.
“It’s an ongoing process,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Christine McMorrow. “There is always going to be more work.”
Cal Fire is steadily receiving injections of money to do what it can to reduce wildfire risk, including better land management and training a new generation of foresters. In 2018, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will allocate $1 billion over five years to Cal Fire to be used on fire prevention measures. But experts warn that more money is needed.
“Is it enough? Well, it’s enough for what we’re doing right now, but is that enough to get all the work that needs to be done in one year or five years or 10 years? It’s going to a take lot,” McMorrow said.
Long before the country’s founding, Spanish explorers documented wildland fires in California. In 1542, conquistador Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed along the coast and noticed smoke billowing up from what is now known as the Los Angeles Basin. He called it “la baya de los fumos,” or “the bay of smoke.”
Studies by archaeologists and historians support a theory that Cabrillo might have been witnessing an early form of land management, including the burning of shrubs and chaparral to clear dry brush and promote better conditions for hunting big game.
Prescribed and controlled burns were integral to the American landscape for generations. In 1910, focus started to shift away from forest management and steer toward fire suppression after “The Big Burn” ravaged 3 million acres across Washington, Idaho and Montana, killing at least 85 people and reshaping U.S. fire policy for years to come.
The U.S. Forest Service ordered that all wildland fires be extinguished as soon as possible, eventually settling on the so-called 10 a.m. policy, which emphasized suppressing fires by the morning after they started.
The state’s policy to stop fires as soon as they ignite resulted in a backlog of trees in forests now choked with brush and other dry fuels. According to the U.S. Forest Service, one researcher studying the Stanislaus National Forest in Northern California found records from 1911 showing just 19 trees per acre in one section of the forest. More than a century later, the researcher and his team counted 260 trees per acre.
With denser tree cover comes the danger of bigger fires, Rogers said.
“We have more large trees per acre than we’ve ever had because they have continued to grow, and underneath these large trees are young shrubs that fuel fires in the crown of the trees,” he said. “When a fire starts in there, it’s unstoppable.”
Drought, climate change and bark-beetle infestations have all contributed to the backlog of trees, leaving some experts to push for creative solutions to managing California’s crowded forests.
One potential solution could be turning dead and diseased trees into biomass energy before they start massive wildfires.
Jonathan Kusel founded the nonprofit research organization Sierra Institute for Community and Environment in 1993 in an effort to better understand how state and federal agencies could put leftover organic material to use. The institute is now working with federal and state partners on ways to supply wood chips made from low-value vegetation to biomass facilities that can then burn the organic matter to produce heat and electricity.
Kusel estimates the process, when done correctly in confined barrels, is exponentially cleaner than relying on natural gas for energy. It also facilitates what Kusel calls “the appropriate thinning of forests,” or the clearing of smaller growth, to not only lower the risk of wildfires, but also to contribute to cleaner waterways and lower carbon emissions by promoting healthier forests.
“We aren’t going to be successful if all we do is try to stop fire,” he said. “But we can make it less damaging … and we can try to introduce smaller fires that can maintain habitats in a healthy state.”
But finding buyers for biomass remains a big question for the Sierra Institute. Biomass is considered a dirty word among environmentalists who warn that burning plant material and releasing it into the air can increase carbon emissions.
Removing small growth from forests is also more expensive and not as economically attractive as focusing on large-growth removal that can be turned into timber, Kusel acknowledged. Still, as wildfires threaten to become bigger and more dangerous, Kusel is hopeful that a new locally based biomass market could offset the cost of thinning out the state’s forests by creating smaller, better-maintained facilities that do not release dangerous pollutants into the air.
“Societally we have to think differently about our forests, but we have to invest and manage them differently, too,” he said. “We have to do better.”