California’s inescapable fire debt


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 1st of October, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up: wildfires and land management.

Since August, firefighters have battled nearly 50 major wildfires in Oregon, Washington state, and California. More than 5 million acres of forest, brush, and grasslands have burned so far—adding up to the worst fire season on record.

BASHAM: While politicians tussle over the causes, fire and climate experts point to several factors contributing to the fires’ size and severity.

WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg reports now on the conditions that have created a fire fuel surplus.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Large, disastrous fires aren’t new in Butte County—an area of Northern California that’s split between a fertile valley and heavily forested hills. 

Two years ago, the Camp Fire burned through the region. It torched 19,000 structures and killed 85 people in the small town of Paradise. 

Chris Robins and her family lived in Paradise. They escaped the fast-spreading flames but lost their home. 

ROBINS: We basically lost our town in a matter of six to eight hours like that, just that day.

Now they’re in the process of rebuilding and Robins is back working at a charter school in Paradise. 

But the threat of another fire never seems that far away.

Last month, the North Complex Fire threatened the town again, turning the sky orange and dropping ashes. Robins says fire conditions can now send Paradise residents into panic. 

ROBINS: More often than not, I hear more families still moving, still relocating. Especially now with these new sets of fires. They can’t they’re not dealing well. 

Fire is becoming a reality that a growing number of Californians are expecting, breathing, and fleeing. 

Half of the state’s 20 largest wildfires have burned in the last decade. That’s according to records the state started keeping nearly a century ago. This year’s North Complex Fire is in the top five. 

Stephen Pyne is an environmental historian at Arizona State University. He says today’s big burns are the result of years of suppressing wildfires and letting dead vegetation build up. 

PYNE: We have a great fire deficit. Yep. And it’s manifest in terms of fuels, but also in terms of ecological deterioration.

Some researchers believe that in prehistoric California wildfires blazed through 5 to 12 million acres every year. That’s like burning an area somewhere between the size of New Hampshire and West Virginia. 

But that changed as settlement on the West Coast expanded. Severe wildfires in 1910 led the young U.S. Forest Service to begin seeing wildfires as a threat. They watched fires burn down towns and beautiful forests. So the agency adopted a policy of defeating fire—all fires. 

PYNE: The 1910 fires really skewed things. It traumatized the agency. They lost 78 firefighters in one day, six different incidents. I mean, this was a huge trauma. And three future chiefs of the Forest Service were personally on the fire line. They wanted not simply to suppress fires that were started, but to prevent fires from being started by people for any reason. 

Stephen Pyne says in the 1960s, scientists and officials began to recognize the harm those policies had done. Without fires, forests can become sick. 

PYNE: Forests are more vulnerable to insects and pests and problems. They are fighting each other for more water and resources. But also, you began piling up combustibles. 

But going back to controlled burns and more forest maintenance in California has proved difficult. Landowners and state and federal officials fear controlled burns could get out of control. They also face extensive state and federal regulations and limited funding. 

Pyne says the challenges are obvious when comparing California to other states. In 2017, Florida burned 2.2 million acres, while California torched just 50,000 acres.

PYNE: California in particular has really struggled. Its physical geography. Its demographic density. I mean air quality. Winds. The whole package makes it difficult. But people a century ago did manage it.

At the same time, climate scientists say years of drought in California has killed more plants and trees. Average temperatures have also increased by two degrees over the past century. Hotter and drier summers mean there’s more dead vegetation that’s even more flammable than usual. 

Noah Diffenbaugh is a climate scientist at Stanford University. He says finding ways to live with wildfires requires balancing all contributing factors. 

DIFFENBAUGH: Wildfires always result from multiple conditions coming together. The fuels matter, the conditions of the vegetation matters, and forestry management. 

Craig Thomas directs the Fire Restoration Group. He says another problem in crowded California is that more and more people are moving into fire-prone areas.  

THOMAS: What the realtors never mentioned is, do you want to move here? That’s great. Are you aware that this place used to burn every five to seven years? 

Thomas says living in a fire-danger zone takes extra work—like thinning trees, raking up pine needles and clearing a defensible, tree-free zone around homes. And city and county officials need to better enforce those regulations. 

THOMAS: The expectations of the fire agencies, when we ask them to come and risk their lives to save our house, we better make darn sure we’ve done the work we’re supposed to do.

And new efforts to improve forest management are in the works. In August, California officials signed an agreement with the federal government to encourage state and federal agencies to work together. They’ll implement more managed fires, work to thin forests, and streamline regulations. 

And in May, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon introduced a bill that would provide additional funding to help the Forest Service catch up on forest maintenance.

Meanwhile, back in Paradise, Chris Robins and her husband Andy say living with fires is a burden they’re willing to bear, because they can’t imagine living anywhere else. 

ANDY: It’s home. It’s always been home. We’re gonna stay. We might as well come back here.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg in Paradise, California.


(AP Photo/Noah Berger) Embers fly from a tree as the Glass Fire burns in St. Helena, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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