Fire has been part of the California landscape for millennia, but the past few decades have brought a new level of danger to the state as wildfires have become more destructive than ever before, according to a group of fire experts who spoke last week.
The experts participated in an online program of the Rae Dorough Speaker Series, arranged and sponsored by the Quest Science Center and the Bankhead Theater.
There is no simple solution to the growing wildfire problem, the experts agreed. It has arisen because of a combination of factors including climate change, population growth, residential expansion into risky fire areas, unsafe vegetation near structures and the use of flammable building materials.
Remedies will require dealing with all these factors and more.
One of the experts, William McDonald, Chief of the Alameda County Fire Department, noted that four of the five most destructive wildfires in California history happened this summer.
The biggest of the fires, labeled the August Complex, started in mid-August and was not finally extinguished until a week ago. By then it had consumed an area greater than the state of Rhode Island — more than a million acres of six northern counties, or roughly 1% of California.
Fires like these are many times bigger and more destructive than the wildfires of a few decades ago, said Stewart Gary, former chief of the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department and moderator of the evening’s discussion.
He recalled the Laguna fire of 1970, one of the largest fires in state history until then. It consumed some 175,000 acres in eastern San Diego County.
A decade later, driven by 90 mph Santa Ana winds, the Panorama fire in the San Bernardino Mountains destroyed a much smaller area, 29,000 acres.
“Fire today is a phenomenally different problem than it was,” Gary said.
To Alameda County Fire Chief McDonald, “We aren’t going to be able to stay ahead of this (problem) by fighting the fires only. We have to find preventive measures, ways to reduce impacts and hazards.”
Crystal Kolden, a wildfire expert from the University of California at Merced, said it is a mistake to blame a single factor like climate change or allowing residential expansion into wilderness areas.
“It’s not just that it’s hotter and drier, which it absolutely is,” Kolden said. “California just had its hottest August-September-October on record … But there are many components (to reducing wildfire dangers). At center is how humans are functioning on this landscape and how we have altered California from what it was 200, 300, 500 years ago, before European colonization.”
She went on to note that Indigenous Californians “used fire to clear land, for agriculture, to regenerate grasses, for grazing and livestock, to create space for safety.”
“There are lots of human factors that are changing and helping create that risk matrix,” Kolden continued.
She rejected what she considers a false solution, that people “should just stop living in high-risk areas.” For one thing, she said, most Californians already live in areas considered high risk by Cal Fire, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Eliminating homes in fire prone areas won’t work “unless 20 million people that live in these areas want to all get up and move somewhere else.”
Also, she said, many places not designated high risk have “actually burned in the past several years.” From 2013 through 2018, including the destructive Woolsey and Camp fires, “over half the structures that burned … were in areas that Cal Fire had designated as unburnable.”
Kolden does not believe fires can be eliminated entirely — there will always be lightning strikes — but the state has already taken effective steps to reduce the numbers of fires ignited by people.
Now questions remain around how to mitigate fires and reduce their impact.
Some of the fire prevention remedies raised by the speakers included prescribed burns, creating defensible space around structures, planting with fire resistant vegetation and building with fire-resistant materials.
Kolden suggested air filtration to protect human health in urban areas, “where the impact has been tremendous.”
Gary described this multi-pronged approach as “a layered system, anticipating more than one thing occurring.”
Fire detection technology has advanced far beyond spotters on hilltop towers, with GPS systems and hiker cell phone reports bringing prompt and often valuable information to firefighters.
Still, Kolden said, fire crews can face major challenges simply reaching the scene of a fire. Fires can break out in rugged terrain miles from roads or aircraft landing sites. Sometimes high winds, dense smoke and darkness make access by fire teams or tanker planes difficult or impossible.
Beyond the physical challenge of fighting fires, the firefighters themselves can experience personal stress because of long absences from home and everyday worries about child care and other domestic issues.
McDonald, chief of some 500 personnel in the Alameda County Fire Department, worries about these issues and calls them “cumulative.”
Stuart noted that communities forced to evacuate pay huge disruptive costs. Some residents are displaced for months at a time.
He concluded, “When we talk about costs, we often talk about the direct (fire) suppression cost, but social costs, property, rebuilding headaches are just immense to the communities involved.”
To view the discussion, visit the Quest site at quest-science.org/science-stories/#wildfires-event.