‘Living with fire’: Can West learn to coexist with longtime adversary?

Why We Wrote This

The region has fought a war against wildfire for more than a century. Reaching a detente with wildfire will depend on various parties embracing collective strategies for managing fires and forests.

Frederic Larson/AP
The Golden Gate Bridge is seen at 11 a.m. PT, Sept. 9, 2020, in San Francisco, amid a smoky, orange hue caused by the ongoing wildfires.

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I reported from Afghanistan for three years starting in 2011, when U.S. troop levels had peaked at 100,000. Since 2018, I’ve covered wildfires in the West, where each summer the ranks of firefighters swell as volunteers from other states and countries rush to aid their brothers and sisters on the fiery front lines. Throwing more bodies at the adversary has yielded as little progress here as there.

The West’s forever war has wrought a summer of catastrophe. Thick layers of smoke and ash have coated the region’s skies for weeks as tens of thousands of firefighters battle hundreds of wildfires from California’s border with Mexico to Washington’s border with Canada. The infernos have scorched more than 5 million acres and killed at least 36 people.

The fallout illustrates the urgency for states to rethink approaches to fire suppression and prevention. Reaching a detente with wildfire will depend on various parties – firefighting agencies and environmental groups, loggers and foresters, elected officials and community residents – leaving their ideological bunkers to embrace collective strategies for managing fires and forests.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, who suggested that federal and state officials steer more resources to land management and fire prevention.

As Ms. Quinn-Davidson told me, “If we’re not protecting the resources we care about and we’re not taking action, then we will continue to lose them to big fires.”

American military leaders in Afghanistan first conceded a decade ago that the United States couldn’t kill its way out of an insurgency. By then, halfway through a war that next month will pass the 19-year mark, the Taliban’s strength and stubbornness had forced the generals to accept that ending the bloodshed would require compromise.

Earlier this year, American and Taliban officials signed a conditional peace accord, the first phase in a two-stage process to broker a permanent cease-fire. The second began last weekend as Afghan government and Taliban leaders convened in Qatar for negotiations that for years the Taliban vowed they would never consider.

The war has fractured the country’s public institutions and decimated the economy while claiming tens of thousands of lives, including Afghan civilians and military personnel, Taliban fighters, and more than 2,400 U.S. troops. Given the toll, any agreement that emerges from the ongoing talks will be imperfect, neither redressing all grievances nor fulfilling every demand of the parties involved.

For conciliation to succeed, both sides must offer concessions and search for mutual understanding, realizing that a refusal to give ground will ensure a future as violent and tragic as the recent past. They will need to cultivate peace in the mixed soil of cooperation.

Several thousand miles away, the same painful lessons and the same hard truths apply to another long, costly, and intractable conflict: the war on wildfire in the American West.

The region has sought to kill its way out of fire for more than a century, attempting to extinguish flames as soon as they ignite to protect communities, homeowners, and natural lands. The policy of suppression, if well-intentioned, has led to overgrown forests and grasslands that, combined with climate change, feed fires that burn bigger, faster, and hotter, inflicting ever more destruction and despair.

The West’s own forever war has wrought a summer of catastrophe. Thick layers of smoke and ash have coated the region’s skies for weeks as tens of thousands of firefighters battle hundreds of wildfires from California’s border with Mexico to Washington’s border with Canada. The infernos have scorched more than 5 million acres and killed at least 36 people since early August, ravaging entire towns and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

The fallout illustrates the urgency for states to rethink approaches to fire suppression and prevention. Reaching a detente with wildfire will depend on various parties – firefighting agencies and environmental groups, loggers and foresters, elected officials and community residents – leaving their ideological bunkers to embrace collective strategies for managing fires and forests.

As with the Afghanistan peace talks, any potential resolution will fail to satisfy everyone. But resisting compromise in the war on wildfire will bring only more devastation, more summers of catastrophe.

Adapting to the era of megafires

I reported from Afghanistan for three years starting in 2011, when U.S. troop levels had peaked at 100,000. Since 2018, I’ve covered wildfires in the West, where each summer the ranks of firefighters swell as volunteers from other states and countries rush to aid their brothers and sisters on the fiery front lines. Throwing more bodies at the adversary has yielded as little progress here as there.

Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters
Elizabeth Wright of the U.S. Forest Service watches a helicopter as it makes a water drop in the Angeles National Forest during the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles Sept. 16, 2020.

The era of megafires has dawned in the West during the past decade as temperatures rise. In California, an extended drought and a beetle infestation have killed 150 million trees, providing a vast stockpile of wildfire fuel. Some 3.3 million acres have burned already this year, and the state appears certain to double its record of 1.85 million acres set in 2018.

The state’s primary firefighting agency, known as Cal Fire, employs 9,700 full-time and seasonal firefighters and operates a fleet of 52 aircraft. In fiscal year 2018-19, the agency spent $635 million on extinguishing wildfires – another figure that could double in this ruinous fire season.

The state’s heavy reliance on suppression arises, in part, from a reluctance to manage land through prescribed burns, tree thinning, brush clearing, and other “treatments” that reduce wildfire fuels and fire risk. Cal Fire treats 20,000 to 50,000 acres a year and dedicates 150 personnel to the task.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, who suggested that federal and state officials steer more resources to land management and fire prevention. The move would push firefighting agencies in the West to increase the attention and manpower devoted to fuel-reduction operations, a shift that could ease dependency on fire suppression over time.

A new initiative in California holds promise in that regard. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom last month announced an agreement between the state and the U.S. Forest Service to treat 1 million acres of wildlands a year by 2025.

At the same time, the pact reveals the long road ahead to reduce overgrowth in California’s forests and grasslands. One recent analysis by Stanford researchers estimated that the state would need to treat 20 million acres – almost one-fifth of California’s land area – to restore balance to its forests and lower the risk of cataclysmic wildfires.

The sobering numbers offer ample reason to nurture fire prevention efforts beyond those of state and federal land managers. The futility of fire suppression has renewed interest in the cultural burning practices of Native American tribes in Northern California and elsewhere. A similar reawakening has occurred in Australia, as I learned earlier this year while reporting on bushfires that destroyed a staggering 46 million acres.

Ms. Quinn-Davidson works with communities, ranch owners, and farmers to conduct prescribed burns that can forestall wildfires from exploding into developed areas. “We need public agencies, communities, Native American tribes, private landowners – everybody has to be involved,” she told me. “We really need to aspire to get to that place where there isn’t this division between experts and the public, where we’re all kind of one fire-adapted culture.”

California could further pursue more state-federal alliances for sustainable forestry in the mold of the Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative. The coalition of environmental and timber industry groups, formed in 2017, has set out to restore 2.4 million acres of federal forestland in the Sierra Nevada through prescribed burns, thinning, and limited logging.

As one scientist involved with the project explained to me last year, “We have to make a cultural shift away from both the Smokey Bear days of putting every fire out and from the anti-logging days of saying the removal of any tree is bad. That’s giving us bigger and bigger fires.”

“Our” is the key word

Wildfires at once incinerate the order of life and puncture the West’s mythos of rugged individualism. The infernos roaring through communities in California, Oregon, and Washington expose our shared vulnerability as we turn to emergency officials, aid workers, and public agencies for relief.

The communal hardship, in turn, reveals the cost of our aversion to fire prevention methods – more prescribed burning, restricted wildland development, stronger building codes – that can reduce our wildfire risk.

“Our” is the key word. Nobody living in the West can claim full immunity from either the direct or indirect impact of megafires. In that light, each of us owns a stake in improving fire prevention because “we all end up paying for the destruction,” Max Moritz told me in 2018, the previous “worst-ever” year for fires in the Golden State.

A wildfire expert with the University of California, Santa Barbara, Mr. Moritz added, “We also publicly fund all the fire suppression, the fire agencies, the disaster support systems. So there’s a place for saying that we need a more science-based approach to land management that could reduce the amount of damage.”

Fire researchers estimate that at least 4.4 million acres burned each year in California before 1800. Between 1950 and 1999, as a result of the state’s unrelenting fire suppression, the annual average plummeted to 250,000 acres. The collision of dense forests with climate change has ignited a crisis two decades later that requires us to accept the responsibility we bear for our universal plight.

The Stanford study found that opposition from local residents and officials to prescribed burning – along with liability concerns if a fire escapes its handlers – deters public and private land managers from the practice.

But as a Cal Fire official pointed out to me last year, if we allow more prescribed burning, fire crews can create more fuel breaks – areas cleared of most smaller trees and shrubs – that slow or stop a wildfire’s advance. The tactic can prevent wildfires from erupting into megafires and, over time, resuscitate forest health as mature trees regain the space they need to survive.

In other words, when we weigh the destruction of this year’s infernos against the strictly monitored loss of habitat that occurs with prescribed fire, we might want to reconsider complaining about, say, smoke from a controlled burn. Or as Ms. Quinn-Davidson told me, “If we’re not protecting the resources we care about and we’re not taking action, then we will continue to lose them to big fires.”

Our fondness for building homes in wildlands deserves similar reevaluation. Eleven million people live in areas designated as fire-prone in California, and from 2000 to 2013, three-quarters of the homes destroyed by wildfire fell within those zones.

The state could take a cue from Washington, where five years ago, two communities 40 miles apart pooled resources to forge a joint land-use plan that restricts growth in wildlands to reduce the threat from wildfires. Another example of enlightened planning has taken root in Paradise, a Northern California town of 27,000 people nestled among towering pines in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Two years after the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state’s history leveled the city, local officials are creating a buffer zone on its outskirts, acquiring vacant property that will remain undeveloped to serve as a massive fuel break.

The strategies illuminate what wildfire researchers describe as “living with fire,” an ethos that parallels the realization of U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan a decade ago. Here as there, brute force has shown its limits, and after long years of war, the time has come for compromise. For peace.

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