You Can’t Fight California Fires With Political Hot Air

Bloomberg Opinion , November 13, 2019

The California fires have produced apocalyptic images and rhetoric to match. Instead of talking about how to prevent dangerous conflagrations and limit their damage, loud public voices denounce their favorite sinners: fossil-fuel use or fanatical environmentalism or corporate greed or building houses in the woods or whatever the critic hates about California. These morality tales often contain elements of truth, but they substitute righteous feelings for accurate details and practical solutions. By stoking political division, they may even make future fires more likely.

President Donald Trump is correct, for instance, that better forest management would help. He's wrong about what it would look like, why it isn’t in place and who’s ultimately in charge. The details don’t serve his tribal interests.

The same is true about claims that the problem is naughty Californians living too close to nature. It’s as absurd to say that Californians shouldn’t have buildings in wooded areas as it would be to say that the foliage should be leveled and replaced with a fire-resistant urban landscape of concrete and steel — or that fire-prone Chicago should have been abandoned in the 19th century and flammable London in the 17th. Human civilization has always required learning to live with fire.

Yes, regulators should make it easier to build in cities, where the demand for housing outstrips supply. But restricting construction on cheap outlying land will only worsen the state’s housing crisis. Living near potential fuel is hardly a peculiar California quirk. In fact, about a third of all Americans now live in what’s known as the Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, and those houses aren’t going anywhere. Not everyone goes for pricey lots in the concrete jungle.

There are practical ways to limit the damage wrought by wildfires that have been part of the western landscape since time immemorial and that appear to be worsening because of climate change. If everyone would calm down and stop trying to score political points at the expense of wildfire victims, we could significantly ameliorate the problem.

For starters, let’s differentiate three types of fires: forest fires, chaparral fires and structural fires. The first two are normal parts of the region’s ecology. “An estimated 54 percent of California ecosystems are fire dependent, and most of the rest are fire adapted,” writes fire historian Stephen J. Pyne. “Only the most parched of Mojave deserts, stony summits, perennial wetlands, and fog-sodden patches of the coast are spared.” Many of the state’s native flora and fauna need periodic fires to flourish. The question is how to manage them.

That’s where the president’s garbled advice comes in.

In the early 20th century, the new U.S. Forest Service debated how to deal with fire in the western woods it controlled. (The federal government owns about 45% of California, almost 46 million acres.) One side advocated periodic “light-burning,” dubbing it “the Indian way of forest management.” These fire supporters lost the argument to those who, Pyne writes, “favored active fire protection by applying the science of the day with the force of government authority to prevent fires, fight fires, exclude fires. The light-burning controversy was a national issue, but it was argued in California.”

For most of the 20th century, professional foresters viewed every woodland fire as undesirable. Smokey Bear, who celebrates his 75th birthday this year, instilled that lesson in the general public.

Like the idea that every microbe is harmful, that view is now obsolete. Since at least the 1990s, the overwhelming scientific consensus has been that suppressing every blaze damages ecosystems and encourages far more dangerous conflagrations. But controlled burns are still rare. “The fact is that less than 1% of Forest Service lands are currently being managed with fire each year,” reports the Nature Conservancy. “It will take some years to build the capacity and social will to manage fire for resource benefits at large scales.”

Meanwhile, Californians and their forests are still living with the consequence of the earlier paradigm: a huge buildup of the brush and small trees that can fuel megafires, particularly in the northern parts of the state. That buildup persists mostly for reasons that are much more quotidian than opposition from intransigent greens. Restoring a healthy forest with tree thinning and prescribed burns takes money and trained personnel, and there’s a shortage of both.

Fire is much cheaper per acre than mechanical clearing, but it can’t be used everywhere. In some cases, the terrain makes the blaze too hard to control, while in others people live too close. As for thinning, allowing private contractors to do it can reduce costs, by giving them access to potentially salable wood. But the trees and brush that need to go aren’t high-value timber, and not every area is easily accessible.

“Despite scientific evidence, the federal government continues spending more money on fire suppression than prescribed burns,” Krystina Skurk writes in the Federalist, charging “environmental protection schemes” with responsibility. She’s right about the science and the spending. But mainstream environmentalists are largely on her side, even when prescribed burns require finding ways around the Clean Air Act. The primary reason for the disparity between suppression and burns isn’t ideology. It’s budget constraints.

Confronted with raging megafires demanding immediate attention, the Forest Service in recent years has depleted funds that could have otherwise been used for forest restoration, including prescribed burns. Beginning this fiscal year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover the emergency firefighting, but whether this fire fix will free more money for forest management remains to be seen.

Besides, many of California’s most dangerous fires have nothing to do with forests, raked or otherwise. The chaparral fires that dominate Southern California present special difficulties as they race up and down slopes. “It burns so explosively and the houses are so close,” says Christopher Topik, a Southern California native who directs the Nature Conservancy’s forest conservation program for North America. Controlled fires that can work in forests aren’t necessarily right for chaparral.

In some cases, reducing potential fuel can be as simple as bringing in goats, an approach pioneered by Laguna Beach, which suffered a $600 million fire in 1993. The city requires different fire-prevention measures, including animal grazing, in different areas, depending on how close they are to the likely source of fires. “The point is, let’s do the right thing in the right place,” says Topik, whose parents saw half the houses on their Laguna Beach street burn down. Goats aren’t appropriate everywhere, and neither are prescribed burns.

Flaming wildlands make for dramatic photos, but they aren’t what thrills and chills the public. From Richard Nixon hosing down the roof of his home during the 1961 Brentwood-Bel Air fire to last year’s devastating Camp Fire, which killed at least 85 people in the state’s far north, the threat to homes and lives strikes terror. It also challenges firefighters, since a structural fire requires different suppression techniques from those used against wildfires. Protecting homes turns out to be even more boring than finding money for clearing overgrown underbrush. It involves things like vent screens.

Houses ignite when wind-borne embers from a wildfire hit flammable material and the blaze works its way inside, creating a structural fire. The kindling could be decorative bark in the garden, a woodpile under the deck or a cedar-shake roof. To reduce risk, houses need a perimeter of low-fuel defensible space. “People don't have to lose all their trees,” says Topik, “but don’t have a pile of firewood right next to your back door. You’re going to have to have a bit of a cleared space.” Attic vents with 1/4”-mesh screens are more likely to admit embers than those with 1/8”-mesh screens — hence the importance of replacing them.

When my East Coast friends and relatives ask whether I’m threatened by the latest fires, my usual response is: “Don’t worry. I live in the concrete. I only have to worry if there are riots.”

But through most of urban history, fires were a common scourge. Cities were full of combustible materials, and they regularly burned. New forms of heating and lighting, new construction materials, fire-conscious building codes and better fire-fighting equipment and techniques reduced the risk that devastating urban fires would ignite and spread. People didn’t abandon cities. They figured out how to keep them from burning down. Instead of looking for scapegoats, we need to address the wildfire threat the same way.

“We really need to think about this as an urban problem,” argues Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwater Economics, a Montana-based research group focused on rural development and land use policies. “We know we can build homes in the way that survive a fire,” he says. “So from my point of view, 95 percent of our effort ought to be focused on the home — the house itself — and how to keep homes from burning. Instead we’re focusing on fuel reduction or we’re focusing on logging in places that are very distant from where the embers might go.”

Last November, Headwater released a study finding that constructing a new fire-resistant home in Montana would cost slightly less than using traditional designs and materials. Fiber-cement siding saved money compared to cedar-plank siding, while gutters, vents, and soffits costs more. “We need to pay attention to the little things,” says Rasker.

The Camp Fire provides striking evidence that little things really can make a difference. In April, the Sacramento Bee published an analysis of fire and property records from the area. It showed that homes built after 2008, when a new building code requiring fire-resistant roofs and siding went into effect, were nearly three times as likely to survive as those built before: 51 percent versus 18 percent. “These are great standards; they work,” an engineer with the California Building Industry Association told the Bee.

Thinking about California’s fires as problems to be ameliorated rather than nature’s judgment raining down upon the enemy still leaves plenty to argue about. What should we do about existing construction? Are mandatory building codes the way to go, or would grassroots educational efforts and retrofitting subsidies be better? And, of course, there’s always the question of who pays for what. Political conflict never disappears. But, like fire itself, it doesn’t have to be entirely destructive.