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As wildfires challenge California, the causes go beyond climate

A shift in thought

Wildfire season has become longer and more intense lately. But beyond addressing climate change, some researchers call for a paradigm shift to address the various human factors relating to prevention and safety.

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    Highway Patrol mans the roadblock on Route 39 in Azusa, Calif., on June 29. The road leads to the mountains of Angeles National Forest, where the San Gabriel Complex fire erupted on June 20. Within a day of igniting, the fire had burned through nearly 5,000 acres and forced hundreds to evacuate – a testament to the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires in the western US, fire officials say.
    Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
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On a chain-link fence along Route 39 hangs a homemade poster, peppered with hearts, thanking firefighters and police.

The sign, one of a handful scattered across town, salutes efforts to battle the San Gabriel Complex fire, twin blazes that had erupted on June 20 in the mountains of Angeles National Forest just to the north of the city. Within a day of igniting, the fire had burned through nearly 5,000 acres and forced hundreds to evacuate.

Nearly a week passed before the US Forest Service and local and state authorities managed to contain even half of the inferno.

“Three days in, you could still see the flames,” says Jasmine Perez, a teacher’s assistant and resident of Azusa, which sits northeast of Los Angeles. And because of the smoke, she adds, “In the mornings, it kind of looked like nighttime still.”

The San Gabriel Complex was one of 12 large fires that about 4,000 firefighters were battling across California as of Thursday. Such numbers so early in the fire season are a testament to the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires in the western US, fire officials say – a shift that many experts say is likely intertwined with climate change and its associated consequences, such as drought.

But climate, however critical, is only part of the problem, scientists say. A growing body of evidence suggests that other human activity and policy have at least as much impact on wildfires as climate change. To effectively address a longer and more intense wildfire season – and ensure the safety of residents in fire-prone areas – both environmental and human factors have to be taken into account in more holistic ways, they say.

That means more than just sweeping dry brush off the front porch. Though such steps are an important part of the process, officials and researchers alike are calling for a comprehensive approach to wildfires: one that incorporates fire safety and behavior in key policy decisions and legislation. Such an effort would also recognize that fire can be helpful as well as harmful and embrace fire’s place in human society.

“We need not just a policy shift but also a cultural shift in the dialogue around fires in our landscape and how to manage them,” says Jennifer Balch, director of Earth Lab and a professor of geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “Fire is not something we can remove. A large majority of the country is living in fire-prone areas. How do we live with wildfire? How do we manage?”

“More and more researchers are arguing that anthropogenic influences are really important [to understanding wildfires],” adds Max Moritz, a specialist in fire ecology and management and a professor at the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley. “By leaving them out we’re missing a critical piece of the solution.”

Changing attitudes on fire

Though often viewed as a problem for western states, the growing frequency of wildfires is a national concern because of its impact on federal tax dollars, Professor Moritz and others say.

In 2015, the US Forest Service for the first time spent more than half of its $5.5 billion annual budget fighting fires – nearly double the percentage it spent on such efforts 20 years ago. In effect, fewer federal funds today are going towards the agency’s other work – such as forest conservation, watershed and cultural resources management, and infrastructure upkeep – that affect the lives of all Americans.

Another nationwide concern is whether public funds from other agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, are going into construction in fire-prone districts. As Moritz puts it, how often are federal dollars building homes that are likely to be lost to a wildfire?

“It’s already a huge problem from a public expenditure perspective for the whole country,” he says. “We need to take a magnifying glass to that. Like, ‘Wait a minute, is this OK?’ Do we want instead to redirect those funds to concentrate on lower-hazard parts of the landscape?”  

Such a pivot would require a corresponding shift in the way US society today views fire, researchers say.

For one thing, conversations about wildfires need to be more inclusive. Over the past decade, the focus has been on climate change – how the warming of the Earth from greenhouse gases (including human carbon emissions) is leading to conditions that exacerbate fires. 

While climate is a key element, Moritz says, it shouldn’t come at the expense of the rest of the equation.

“The human systems and the landscapes we live on are linked, and the interactions go both ways,” he says. Failing to recognize that, he notes, leads to “an overly simplified view of what the solutions might be. Our perception of the problem and perception of what the solution is [becomes] very limited.”

At the same time, people continue to treat fire as an event that needs to be wholly controlled and unleashed only out of necessity, says Professor Balch at the University of Colorado. But acknowledging fire’s inevitable presence in human life is an attitude crucial to developing the laws, policies, and practices that make it as safe as possible, she says.

“We’ve disconnected ourselves from living with fire,” Balch says. “It is really important to understand and try and tease out what is the human connection [with fire] today.”

Role for citizens ... and for policy

After nearly 30 years in the state fire service, Janet Upton understands the value of that connection.

During her early days with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), veterans would tell war stories of huge fires that happened once in a career, she recalls.

“But in my generation, those of us who’ve come up through the '80s, '90s, 2000s …  we feel like we don’t have the license to use the word ‘unprecedented’ any more. We’ve seen it all in the last few years,” she says. “I’ve probably had 15 once-in-a-career fires.”

And people caused most of them, Ms. Upton says. About 90 percent of all fires in California can be traced to human activity, whether it’s a stove left on or a campfire left burning. Which is why public education has been Upton’s main goal since 2008, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her Cal Fire’s deputy communications director.

The department has since made strides, playing a major role in launching state and nationalcampaigns that underscore the public’s role in fire safety. But people’s tendency to put danger out of their minds until it’s too late continues to pose serious challenges, Upton says.

“This is going to sound cold. But if someone chooses to live in a rural area and continues to not be responsive to [fire-safety] education, sadly, the worst punishment they’re going to get is they’re going to lose their home in a fire,” she says.

A paradigm shift, some researchers hope, can address that gap between education and action. Environmental policy specialist Ray Rasker, for instance, envisions whole communities designed around the concept of fire safety, and a slate of fire-prevention policies at the local, state, and national level.

“What we’re telling the public now is, ‘Reduce the risk of fires – if you so choose.’ Imagine if we tried driving our cars like that,” says Dr. Rasker, who is also executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research firm based in Bozeman, Mont. “Why not use regulations, building codes, and subdivision design standards, development codes and ordinances that say, ‘Look if you’re going to build there, there are certain conditions you have to meet first’?”

Some places are already taking steps. San Diego’s municipal code, for instance, requires property owners to maintain landscape and vegetation standards – or face a penalty equivalent to the cost of hiring a private contractor to do so. Austin, Texas, has set aside close to 30 percent of city land as conservation areas, curbing the number of new structures that can be built within the fire-prone “wildland-urban interface” (WUI) – the space between unoccupied natural land and human developments. Flagstaff, Ariz., Boulder, Colo., and Santa Fe, N.M., have all enacted similar policies. 

But the need for action continues to grow. As bad as wildfires have been in recent years, research shows they’re likely to get worse as the US population increases and people build more homes in the WUI, more than 80 percent of which remain undeveloped.

“We keep building more and more homes in harm’s way,” Rasker notes. “Unless we get a handle on development, we’re really not addressing the problem.”

Mind-set matters, too – for everyone, says Upton at Cal Fire.

“It’s a mitigation issue. You can take the lens we’re looking at [in California] and take it to Tornado Alley or the Eastern Seaboard,” she says. In the end, “it’s about informing yourself as a member of the public or a policymaker. How can you do something comprehensive?”

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