• Wed. Jan 20th, 2021

California Fires: Want to Control Blazes? Start More, Experts Say

Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Good morning.

As Californians brace for more bad news about what is already shaping up to be one of the state’s most intense fire seasons ever, and as we watch as firefighting capacity is stretched thin, I keep coming back to one question: What is California supposed to do?

[See our map of fires burning across California.]

This question isn’t new, and neither are many of the answers experts and policymakers routinely offer.

For one, they say, too many people are moving into the wildland-urban interface, the transitional zones between denser areas of human development and vegetation, which makes them more vulnerable to damage in the event of a wildfire.

The solutions to that problem, however, are as complex as the countless reasons people are moving into such areas — not least of which is the state’s housing crisis, pushing Californians farther outside of big cities.

[Read more about why this year’s fires are different.]

Which leaves what Daniel Swain, a California climate expert, told me are essentially smaller-scale fixes.

Communities and homeowners themselves can better prepare by clearing fire breaks or using more fire-resistant building materials in higher-risk areas. Local officials can better plan to evacuate ahead of fast-moving blazes.

And leaders say utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric, whose infrequently maintained equipment sparked the state’s deadliest fire, must be held accountable.

At the end of the day, though, Mr. Swain said, California’s weather is expected to become even more extreme in coming years.

“The big picture solution is realizing there is going to be a lot more fire on the landscape,” he said.

And so, he added, “I don’t see how we get out of this without allowing a lot more to burn.”

In recent years, momentum has built for purposefully setting fires in certain areas to help thin vegetation and restore ecosystems that would naturally burn more frequently, if not for California’s policy of more than a century requiring that all fires be put out.

Before Euro-American settlement in California in the 1800s, about 1.5 million acres of forest burned each year on average, my colleagues wrote — roughly the same amount that has burned so far this year.

[Read about how Smokey Bear’s message of personal responsibility over forest fires may need an update.]

That aggressive fire-suppression policy came at the expense of Native American tribes, who had for thousands of years harnessed fire to help ensure that the forests where they lived were healthy — that the plants that fed them were able to flourish, that fires didn’t burn too hot and destructively.

The decades of total fire suppression, coupled with the federal government’s moves to cut off access to much of that land, have been damaging to both Indigenous communities and forests.

So eventually, as The Guardian reported last year, the U.S. government started to gradually course-correct and now, some members of some of those same tribes are helping fire agencies and other groups learn how to use fire to manage forests.

[Read more about why California should let the forests burn.]

But the challenge now is getting enough funding to use prescribed burns — which require lots of on-the-ground work and monitoring — and getting the green light to conduct prescribed burns in places where residents might be concerned about fires escaping or fouling the air.

Edward Smith, a forest ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, said that prescribed burns required figuring out when weather conditions are right to start a fire (not any time soon) and deciding which areas were at greatest risk of burning dangerously out of control during fire season.

“That’s your burn window,” he said.

Mr. Smith said that while prescribed burns often involved dripping fuel onto the ground, lightning strikes can be a helpful force for burning larger areas, especially with weather modeling and data technology that can help firefighters figure out how to prepare.

“We’re chipping away at a backlog from 150 years of suppression,” he said. “But we can get to a point where we’ll be able to keep up with the accumulation of fuel.”

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Credit…Brian L. Frank for The New York Times

Read more about the fires:

  • Find updates on residents returning to devastated homes and fires burning in other Western states. [The New York Times]

  • “You can’t breathe.” As climate change makes the heat of the Central Valley even more stifling, farm workers are bearing the brunt of both the spread of Covid-19 and the fires making the air toxic. [The New York Times]

Here’s how the Central Valley became the center of the pandemic in the state. [The New York Times]

  • Inside an intense nighttime helicopter rescue of Marin County firefighters trapped in front of the approaching Woodward Fire. [The Press Democrat]

  • A marine biologist lost the home he and his wife had built almost two decades ago to the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex Fire. He wrote his daughter a letter about it: “You are strong, thanks to this home. You carry the memories of our canyon.” [Outside]

Credit…Christian Monterrosa/EPA, via Shutterstock
  • As the nation reels from yet another brutal police shooting captured on video — this time in Kenosha, Wis. — California lawmakers are set to decide the fate of at least 15 police reform bills. But there are worries that politicians’ appetite for the kinds of sweeping changes they promised is fading. [CalMatters]

  • Pasadena has created a new police oversight model. The move came after eight hours of impassioned deliberation in the wake of protests over the death of Anthony McClain, a young Black man shot while running away from Pasadena police officers. [Pasadena Star-News]

  • Owning a home has long been held up as the best way to build wealth and pass it down through generations. But Black homeowners and researchers say that appraisals value houses owned by Black people lower — a pernicious form of discrimination that’s illegal. [The New York Times]

  • “I already called my job and told them I’m going to be late, but I’m probably not going to make it at all.” At the San Ysidro port of entry, coronavirus restrictions have resulted in large and dangerous traffic jams. [The San Diego Union-Tribune]

  • In the fall, LAist/KPCC gave parents of young kids in the Los Angeles area point-and-shoot cameras to document their lives. A lot has changed since then. [LAist/KPCC]

  • Monday (8/24) was Kobe Bryant Day in Los Angeles. The city renamed a stretch of Figueroa Street after him. [The Los Angeles Times]

  • And, a drawing exercise to help you think — and imagine something better. [The New York Times]

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.