Are Recent Wildfires Enough To Restore The Equilibrium With Fire?
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
The Western U.S. is now choking on smoke and ash from 100 large wildfires. Scientists say these fires are fueled in part by forests cluttered with extremely dry brush and dead trees. So with so much of the West burning, could today's wildfires help clear out dangerously flammable forests and essentially hit the reset button to guard against future fires? Capital Public Radio's Ezra David Romero has been asking scientists and forest managers that question, and he's here now with some answers.
EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Hey.
PFEIFFER: These fires in California, Oregon, Washington, elsewhere out West have clearly been extremely destructive. But at a landscape level, are they also helping clear out forests, potentially making them safer next time around?
ROMERO: In some ways, yes. But in many ways, no. You know, there's been 2 million acres burned in California since January, but there's about 48 million acres of mountains, brush and grassland here in California, and there's about 3 million people that live there. So it's a complicated system. I spoke with Susie Kocher about this. She's a forestry adviser in the Tahoe region. Here's what she has to say.
SUSIE KOCHER: Look at that huge map. There'll be some areas where the fire did a lot of good, and it's a chance to reset our management. Once the fuels are gone, now how do we maintain that over time?
ROMERO: And keep in mind she's not saying that fires aren't destructive to people and what they've built.
PFEIFFER: Besides wildfire, what tactics are land managers already using to manage these fuel-filled forests?
ROMERO: So in California, land managers are everyone from the homeowner to the federal government, and they use practices called prescribed burns. That's where fires are lit on purpose. Mechanical thinning - that's where hand crews go out with chainsaws and big machines called masticators to remove brush and trees like they're toothpicks. And then there's managed burns, where fires start naturally and then they're managed. And then people and businesses are highly encouraged to harden their homes, to clear out brush around them, to think about the building materials that they even create their home out of to make sure that they're fire-ready.
PFEIFFER: That's interesting. So homeowners themselves have some responsibility. Ezra, as you said, more than 2 million acres have burned this year in California. Do we know how much land would need to burn or be cleared or otherwise managed to get the state to a more sustainable place with fire?
ROMERO: Sure. So in January of this year a Stanford-led study on the barriers to wildfire management - the authors suggested that 20 million acres need to be addressed every year.
PFEIFFER: Oh, wow.
ROMERO: That's roughly 20% of California that either needs to be burned, thinned, something like that to reduce the fire risk. And California recently had an agreement with the federal government to thin or burn a million acres by 2025 here in California, but still - only a sliver of what's needed to hit that reset button.
PFEIFFER: That kind of maintenance is obviously expensive, and California and the U.S. Forest Service are spending more and more of their budgets every year to fight fires as opposed to money spent on prevention. Does the state of California and other Western states need a fundamentally different approach to managing forests and fires?
ROMERO: Yes. So fires in 2019 cost more than $160 million to put out, but the economic toll was more like $80 billion last year alone. So I think just the sheer costs will force a change of mindset. People want to see more prevention happen and a moving from suppression and just putting fires out to preventing them in the off-season. Patrick Gonzalez is a UC Berkeley climate scientist, and here's what he has to say about that.
PATRICK GONZALEZ: The more that people realize that proactive fire management can avoid catastrophic wildfires, all the deaths and damage that occur, the more people hopefully will favor proactive fire management.
ROMERO: And what he says is even if we push reset on our forests and everything is clean and dandy, there's more of an existential crisis happening out there. Climate change - that looming crisis is what is actually helping these fires get so big so fast. And he says that unless the world, California, the United States gets serious about climate change, wildfires will remain our reality.
PFEIFFER: That's Capital Public Radio News environment reporter Ezra David Romero in Sacramento.
Thank you for covering this issue.
ROMERO: Thank you.
PFEIFFER: And after we taped this conversation earlier today, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection updated the number of acres burned in California from more than 2 million to more than 3 million. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.