We didn't start the fire
September 8, 2020 12:22 PM   Subscribe

They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen? Amid the worst wildfire season in history, ProPublica reports on the science supporting prescribed burns; the military mindset and perverse financial incentives standing in the way; and attempts to change attitudes so government officials can follow the science.
posted by kristi (77 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Lifelong Californian here, I would love literally anything that helps reduce the mega fires. I’m sick of it looking like I live in Mordor.
posted by Drumhellz at 12:32 PM on September 8, 2020 [16 favorites]


(Upon reflection, I should have titled the post, "I don't want to set the world on fire." Apologies.)
posted by kristi at 12:40 PM on September 8, 2020 [12 favorites]


When Trump says that in Finland they rake the leaves, this kind of forest management is actually what he is talking about.
posted by beagle at 12:48 PM on September 8, 2020


Damn straight prescribed burns work and I can't believe that CA isn't at the forefront of this. Back home in the south west of Western Australia our eucalyptus forests and scrub become tinderboxes in the summer. We don't see major bushfires because our prescribed burns are over three times the acreage of unplanned bushfires.

We've been doing prescribed burnings since the fires of '60-61. We haven't had a bushfire larger than 75,000 acres since. The CA wildfires this year have burnt out over 35 times as much SO FAR. Our average bushfire size is 37 acres.

Prescribed burns are the most effective way of stopping large scale wildfires. Even more than banning gender reveal parties from using incendiary devices. If a shitty little state of 2.5 million can keep a similar amount of acreage under control (the SW area of WA that the DBCA manages roughly has the same area as the entire state of California) then a state with California's resouces should find it a cake walk.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 12:52 PM on September 8, 2020 [27 favorites]


It sounds like the scale of prescribed burns needed is... basically on the scale of how much is burning already this year.

So, I don’t think it’s so much “make it not look like Mordor” as realizing you already live in Mordor.

I don’t want to sound too harsh here. I lived in northern CA for a while, and I marveled in the humanistic beauty of the house-encrusted hills. But I don’t think it is something we will, as a society, be able to keep for much longer.
posted by notoriety public at 12:54 PM on September 8, 2020 [7 favorites]


Ctrl+F raking "Phrase not found" WTF?
posted by The Tensor at 1:01 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


I don’t want to sound too harsh here. I lived in northern CA for a while, and I marveled in the humanistic beauty of the house-encrusted hills. But I don’t think it is something we will, as a society, be able to keep for much longer.

You can have your cake and eat it too. The biggest problem with CA fires is that the fire fronts become miles upon miles long because there's so much damn fuel. If you start taking the fuel away between where massive fire fronts form and houses you don't have to deal with defending a hundred mile long front to keep property safe. You won't be able to avoid all property loss tragedy since local fuel sources will still be a thing (short of building homes in the ashes of burnt forests) but you can turn millions of acres into a few dozen homes and zero lives with proper planning.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 1:03 PM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]


Cal Fire pays firefighters well, very well. (And perversely well compared with the thousands of California Department of Corrections inmates who serve on fire crews, which is very much a different story.) As the California Policy Center reported in 2017, “The median compensation package — including base pay, special pay, overtime and benefits — for full time Cal Fire firefighters of all categories is more than $148,000 a year.”


What? lol. $148k in total comp for a CA firefighter is the opposite of "very, very well". I just checked the salaries of the LAFD (all comp for government employees is public information) and every person I can find with a total comp near $148k was actually promoted that year (multiple records with same name, just a title change).

No one is doing Cal Fire for the money.
posted by sideshow at 1:03 PM on September 8, 2020 [10 favorites]


You are going to get the fires anyway, they can be smallish fires which trees survive and all of the native flora which are fire-triggered help mediate, or they can be hell-infernos that melt cars, burn towns, and leave nothing at all behind. Fires are natural parts of forests.
posted by maxwelton at 1:05 PM on September 8, 2020 [11 favorites]


Also, these stories really need to stick a "Northern" in front each California reference. I'm 40, and this SoCal season is just like almost every season I can remember.

Occasionally we get a '94, or a '08, or '18, but giant brush fires every single year are just how life is here down south of Bakersfield. All these recent news stories stories remind me of the OMG DAY BEFORE THANKSGIVING TRAFFIC!!!! videos that the news in like Cleveland or CNN show of the 405 North near the 10 that could have been taken between 3pm-9pm literally any workday of the year.

Just like the 405 always has traffic, our hillsides are always on fire.
posted by sideshow at 1:13 PM on September 8, 2020 [7 favorites]


One last thing: As you read this article, or those like it, think about what would have been written differently if it were written by a lobbyist of the lumber industry, or the lobbyist of an industry fighting to relax California's stricter clean air and pollution standards. You might be surprised about how close your answer is to: not much.
posted by sideshow at 1:19 PM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]


There are things in this article that square with what I was taught, and things that don't. Overall I think it's important to note that the idea of a "true way" that the forests are supposed to be is inherently linked with colonialism and the Indian genocide and how they changed land use patterns over the last several hundred years. I don't think it's useful to have a backward-looking view that trawls history for one moment in time when things were correct and tries to get back there, over the objections of people who do the same thing but select a different moment.

Second I'm really nervous about how the article aligns controlled burns and fire suppression as two sides of the same thing, arguing we should do more of one and less of the other to get the small & frequent fires we find more desirable. The controlled burn part matches what I learned, and California isn't the only state in the West where liability laws really interfere with burning as much as we want. But my understanding is suppression really only makes a dent as far as protecting structures and evacuation routes, and has basically no impact on fuel buildup. That despite frequent talk of "containment" it's almost always weather that puts out fires, not firefighters. Lastly this is the part of the article that really strikes me:
The QFR acknowledged there was no way prescribed burns and other kinds of forest thinning could make a dent in the risk imposed by the backlog of fuels in the next 10 or even 20 years.
For two reasons actually: first that it's the only hint of a third side in all this that must be acknowledged: the loggers who want to use "fuel reduction" as an excuse to go after wilderness areas and bypass all environmental protection. And secondly for the fatalistic reality that no matter what we want the forests to be like, we'll have to be prepared for decades of megafires that are now unavoidable.
posted by traveler_ at 1:21 PM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]


What? lol. $148k in total comp for a CA firefighter is the opposite of "very, very well". I just checked the salaries of the LAFD (all comp for government employees is public information) and every person I can find with a total comp near $148k was actually promoted that year (multiple records with same name, just a title change).

No one is doing Cal Fire for the money.
posted by sideshow at 4:03 PM on September 8

I don't really understand what you're saying. The article's quote from the California Policy Center is accurate - they did say that, and did cite that income. And if that's a median income, I could easily believe that people choose the career for the money.
posted by ZaphodB at 1:32 PM on September 8, 2020 [4 favorites]


So, I don’t think it’s so much “make it not look like Mordor” as realizing you already live in Mordor.

Not sure why you felt it necessary to make this point to me. Glad you were in California at some point and that makes you an expert. /s
posted by Drumhellz at 1:34 PM on September 8, 2020


I guess I came across harsh regardless. I’m sorry, Drumhellz.
posted by notoriety public at 1:44 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


Yeah I probably didn’t need to call you out over it either, it’s just a little bit out of my control where I live due to *gestures broadly at everything* and I’ve had weeks of unsafe smoke levels outside so I’m not getting to cope with lockdown in my usual ways.
posted by Drumhellz at 1:47 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


My takeaway from this article is that fires are inevitable so we can do them on a schedule (controlled burns) or do them when we least want them (what we do now). The trouble is that fires suck. They make smoke and bad air regardless of whether they're controlled or not. And the clear air part of government regulation has a lot of power these days as the article notes: "Maybe there’s too much smog that day from agricultural emissions in the Central Valley, or even too many locals complain that they don’t like smoke." We're not even supposed to have a fire in our fireplace many days in the winter due to particulate pollution. So there's definitely some trade-offs here that people are clearly trying to avoid. (the real answer is of course to get California from being a state where everyone drives two cars at once, but that's a whole other fight).

But there's no easy answers here. Something has to give and life in CA is going to get worse before it gets better.

(says the guy whose house is noticeably dark today from smoke coverage in spite of no longer being near any major fires)
posted by GuyZero at 1:49 PM on September 8, 2020 [3 favorites]


kristi, thank you for this post! I'm a big ProPublica fan.

Last month, NPR had To Manage Wildfire, California Looks to What Tribes Have Know All Along: Before 1800, several million acres burned every year in California due to both Indigenous burning and lightning-caused fires, far more than even the worst wildfire years today. Tribes used low-grade fires to shape the landscape, encouraging certain plants to grow both for tribal use and to attract game. The arrival of Western settlers dramatically changed the fire regime.[...] The U.S. Forest Service infamously had the "10 a.m. policy": to put out all forest fires by 10 a.m. the next day. Without regular fires to clear out underbrush, forests quickly became overgrown, creating the conditions for more extreme fires.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:50 PM on September 8, 2020 [6 favorites]


Back in 2018 Harper's ran a few pieces on wildfires. Combustion Engines, which is broadly about the fire season in the American West, illuminated some cultural divides / factors that I hadn't even been aware of.
In one neighborhood, the Lolo Peak fire was emphatically punctuated with confrontations between firefighters and open-carry advocates, the latter expressing their disapproval of the feds by packing pistols, displaying yard signs castigating Forest Service “liberals” and blaming the government for a natural disaster. They went as far as welcoming local and state firefighters while accosting federal employees, even though they all served under the same command.
posted by Western Infidels at 1:57 PM on September 8, 2020 [4 favorites]


Without regular fires to clear out underbrush, forests quickly became overgrown, creating the conditions for more extreme fires.

I can't find where I read this last week but apparently just since the 60's the number of days over 85 F has risen significantly. We all joke about how no one in SF has air conditioners, but more seriously the conditions to create wildfires have changed immensely since the days of native tribes doing controlled burns. The state is far more flammable than it's ever been, separately from whatever accumulation of fuel there might be.
posted by GuyZero at 2:03 PM on September 8, 2020 [7 favorites]


IANAHR, but for $150k including overtime and special comp and benefits, there could be say (wild guess) a 70-80k basic in there somewhere?

For a job that requires people to schlep heavy equipment while wearing firefighting gear in 100+ degree conditions, while under stress, and having to make strategic decisions, in life or death conditions, with a non-negligible chance of getting killed by being roasted alive, that actually doesn't seem that much.
posted by carter at 2:42 PM on September 8, 2020 [14 favorites]


We all joke about how no one in SF has air conditioners

And every one of the last four summers had made me think, "I should get a portable a/c unit because these September-October fire spasms seem like they're really settling in." Yesterday I was kicking myself for forgoing the purchase yet again.

Just the anecdotal experience of these last four years has really been something. I've lived in coastal California--northern and southern--for 15 years. Even with that small of a sampling, it feels like we've tipped into this intensity of fire/smoke season as a new baseline.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:46 PM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]


The size of this year's fires are mind boggling. 1,059,583 acres have already burned this year (mostly in NorCal, as pointed out above.) That's 35 times more acreage then the same timeframe last year, and 3x the average.

And 'fire season' is generally considered to run from July through November, so we're just about at the halfway mark.

Source
posted by Frayed Knot at 2:48 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


Here's a Cal Fire ad for a battalion chief. It's 5-6.5k/month. I'm guessing the lower-ranked firefighters get paid less.
posted by carter at 2:49 PM on September 8, 2020 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the Creek fire is a sign of a new type of megafire. It was something else. I was at Mammoth Pool Reservoir about 4 hours before people became trapped there and while I was making the drive up, the fire went from "oh there's some smoke coming from beyond that ridge 10 miles away" to "oh, are those flames across the river?" and 45 minutes later I hit a ranger roadblock saying the road behind was closed due to fire and the road ahead was closed due to a bridge washout. It got so big so fast and took so many people by surprise. I saw a video from someone who took my route later in the day and it was a tunnel of fire.

If things had lined up just a little differently, hundreds would've died. Read about that helicopter rescue at the Mammoth Pool boat ramp and then check it out on Google Maps. You'll see what it looked like earlier in the year when the water was higher. The only reason they even had anywhere to take shelter was that the lake was being taken down for the winter already. Otherwise the trees go right to the water's edge there.

~9 miles from the fire perimeter to my house right now.
posted by feloniousmonk at 4:15 PM on September 8, 2020 [7 favorites]


I agree about the need for prescribed burns, but I feel like the story really understates the role of climate change.
posted by pinochiette at 5:10 PM on September 8, 2020 [3 favorites]


Jeeze stay safe feloniusmonk.
posted by carter at 5:31 PM on September 8, 2020


I think it does okay on climate change - it's mentioned in several places, there's a shoutout to the Earth Systems Ecology Lab, the last paragraph is:
The fire and climate science before us is not comforting. It would be great to call in a 747, dump 19,200 gallons of retardant on reality and make the terrifying facts fade away. But ignoring the tinderbox that is our state and our planet invites more madness, not just for the Cassandras but for us all.

As Ingalsbee said, “You won’t find any climate deniers on the fire line.”
There could be more detail here on climate but then you start to get into other areas. But what I liked about this piece was that it avoided what you sometimes you get in these discussions, which is a direct opposition between climate change and poor management of forests and prescribed burns; rather it basically says "It's both."
posted by carter at 5:43 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


>It's 5-6.5k/month

The pension boosts that somewhat.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 6:27 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


One of the comments that struck me about the Australian experience with bushfires was that the aboriginal peoples actively managed the environment by reducing tree density to create fertile grass plains that increased the capacity of the land to sustain kangaroo and other animals.

The western ideal of a "nature preserve" is to let trees run wild, grow close to each other, then get surprised when all that fuel next to each other ignites into a gigantic firestorm. It's the equivalent of letting your garden run wild with weeds thinking that's natural instead of managing it - it's not healthier or better simply because it's natural.
posted by xdvesper at 6:54 PM on September 8, 2020 [3 favorites]


Try living in California, subsisting on seasonal work, and check out the cost of health insurance if you think your average Cal Fire fighter gets paid too much. That was a terrible derail in the article. They conflate the incentives of a huge, socially conservative, militaristic and male dominated bureaucracy, with incentives of corporate interests, with a few individual workers setting fires to get work. Individual, low level Cal Fire workers have no influence on policy!

I also had issues with how under discussed climate change was in this.

But still, really good overview of the benefit of controlled burns and what a policy failure we have on this score. Everything is like this in California by the way: we have an incredibly timid and dysfunctional legislature and a conservative (in the sense of not risk ‐taking) governor, in a moment when we need incredibly bold policy change.
posted by latkes at 7:15 PM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]


The key words in that median annual salary for a firefighter estimate are "full time". It's been a long while since I've known any forest firefighters, but it was highly seasonal work for them.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 8:41 PM on September 8, 2020 [7 favorites]


Something I'm curious about is how controlled burns work in inaccessible areas like steep mountain terrain. I've only really seen how they work in relatively flat areas--not the sort of areas currently burning near me in SoCal. I was sort of hoping the article would get into that part a little. I assume that is part of the hesitancy about risk of the fire becoming uncontrollable. Idk, maybe Yosemite guy from the article would have had some insight.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 8:53 PM on September 8, 2020


I don't really understand what you're saying. The article's quote from the California Policy Center is accurate - they did say that, and did cite that income. And if that's a median income, I could easily believe that people choose the career for the money.

I'm pretty sure Sideshow is saying that $148k total is not actually that high for firefighters in California. That seems to be broadly correct, in that it's the same as what you could get on average in the high CoL population centers (sometimes even a bit lower) but it beats local FDs in rural areas by a lot so I wouldn't think they have too much trouble finding applicants.
posted by atoxyl at 8:55 PM on September 8, 2020


Before we get too glib, didn't a huge chunk of Australia burn last year?
posted by aspersioncast at 8:59 PM on September 8, 2020 [3 favorites]


Here's a Cal Fire ad for a battalion chief. It's 5-6.5k/month. I'm guessing the lower-ranked firefighters get paid less.

We're talking total comp but even without benefits pay tends to exceed base salary by a lot because of overtime.

(this isn't an argument about whether the pay is high or low, just factually what it is)
posted by atoxyl at 9:03 PM on September 8, 2020


Before we get too glib, didn't a huge chunk of Australia burn last year?

Yes. And people were asking why there hadn't been more controlled burns and were told that had been as many controlled burns as weather permitted; but more importantly:

Conditions were so bad that controlled burns could not have helped. We had had a dry spring followed by a hot summer, with days regularly above 40c (107F). Consequently, when fires started they were extremely fast and hot. The fires created their own weather systems that lofted burning sticks and other material ahead of the fire front, and the flames weren't just burning in forest litter but leaping from treetop to treetop. Controlled burns can reduce the risk to isolated communities and dwellings, but they can't prevent huge and intense fires like the ones we experienced - was it just this year? Gosh. Earlier this year.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:58 PM on September 8, 2020 [4 favorites]


Here's an article that touches on indigenous approaches to land management in California before Europeans arrived.

A newsletter I recently received from an Ohlone owned business had this to say about the current fires: "When our homeland was invaded, colonizers forcefully restricted our ancestors from practicing the old burns, and now the land is in a deep fire drought, overgrown from lack of tending and management."
posted by nikoniko at 10:23 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


I don't live in California. I live in East Gippsland.

Prescribed fuel reduction burning causes so much less damage than periodic uncontrolled wildfires that it ought to be the absolute minimum public policy approach to the project of housing human beings in inflammable landscapes.

That said,

indigenous approaches to land management in California before Europeans arrived

absolutely need to be given far more weight by policymakers than they are at present, as do land management approaches of indigenous civilizations from the continent where the fire-adapted and therefore fire-promoting eucalyptus species that Europeans imported to California came from.

Treating fire as a phenomenon that's at least as necessary to the health of the local ecology as rain - which it absolutely is, for ecologies dominated by eucalypts - and learning how much and how intensely and when to run burns, and how to manage running burns, and who needs to do that, and how much expertise they need before being trusted to do it, all informed by the primary goal of promoting ecological health as opposed to minimizing the total number of fires: that's the public policy approach we should all be aspiring to.
posted by flabdablet at 11:08 PM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]


aspersioncast - my point was that the land looked quite different before the Europeans arrived and changed it. Obviously there are fires today: hence the conversation around solutions. Trying to solve the problem by calculating that we need to burn 1 million acres per year and going "omg that's an impossible amount to burn per year" and "we want to burn more, but stupid people keep stopping us" doesn't address the other answer to the problem, which is, why do we have such a high density of trees to begin with that requires that much burning? It's like having a backyard that's allowed to grow wild with weeds and then wringing your hands over killing the snakes that move in without considering that keeping the garden tidy would have avoided the problem to begin with.

It's like employers justifying charging employees high hourly prices for parking at their own workplace because "we don't have enough car parks and car parks are expensive and we need to allocate them properly in order of need" instead of going, how can we support employees who want to work from home?
posted by xdvesper at 11:34 PM on September 8, 2020


now the land is in a deep fire drought

This idea of a "fire drought" is a strong one, inviting as it does the comparison between the way a big rain after a prolonged drought can cause even more damage to ecologies than the drought itself, and the effects of a big fire after a deep fire drought.
posted by flabdablet at 11:45 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


The whole climate/forest/fire-management issue is complex. Here's the online proceedings of a USDA-sponsored conference on Forest conservation and management in the Anthropocene.

It includes Briefing: Climate and wildfire in western U.S. forests.
posted by carter at 4:22 AM on September 9, 2020 [3 favorites]




The article talks about it, but the opposition to prescribed burns from local communities can be really intense (and, that opposition is effective -- legislators from rural areas are very responsive when a large group of local voters gets outraged).

I have worked on a forest-wide resiliency plan, and once you lay out all the sideboards restricting prescribed burns (like air quality concerns, etc.), the number of potential acres per year gets pitifully small, just like the article describes for California. Burning may be the right choice from a science perspective, but it isn't yet a realistic choice for forest managers due to the opposition and barriers.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:43 AM on September 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


Before we get too glib, didn't a huge chunk of Australia burn last year?

The east coast, where the fires were, are much more conservative and much less experienced with controlled burns compared to the southwest where it's pretty much a science.

the number of potential acres per year gets pitifully small

It's not pitifully small. In a state like California the prescribed burns are still going to be somewhere around half a million acres per year. But if you burn half a million acres of the right fuel you'll end up with only ~150,000 acres of uncontrolled fires per year vs the 4-8 million acres that typically get burnt out during the wildfire season.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 7:06 AM on September 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


It's not pitifully small. In a state like California the prescribed burns are still going to be somewhere around half a million acres per year.

The prescribed burns should be twice that number. But they aren't, by two orders of magnitude:

Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres.

And:

“We’re at 20,000 acres a year. We need to get to a million. What’s the reasonable path toward a million acres?” Maybe we could get to 40,000 acres, in five years. But that number made Goulette stop speaking again. “Forty thousand acres? Is that meaningful?” That answer, obviously, is no.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:12 AM on September 9, 2020


Controlled burn politics in California seems to parallel housing policy: a few loud individuals in local municipalities have enormous power to shut down widely understood best policy - harming the whole state. This is wildfire NIMBYism.
posted by latkes at 8:46 AM on September 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


As a part time (don't worry, not there now) resident of the area, I want more* controlled burns too, but it's probably a little more than simply NIMBYism. In a lot of the areas being hardest hit right now, it's not clear controlled burns would have been possible because there are too many structures in the area. It pretty much has to be logged, but logging is massively disruptive even at the current limited levels and that's not a fix, either. Here's Bass Lake's dirty little secret: if the fire gets there, and it's presently ~5 miles away, they're fucked and so is Oakhurst as a consequence, because there are about 3 seasons worth of dead trees that were logged but not cleared and simply piled up in random areas around the lake. Some areas might as well be lumber yards. This is true of the Sierra National Forest/Bass Lake Recreation Area in general, unfortunately right to my house. The ridgeline you take from the lake to where I'm at was logged but not cleared this spring.

* Important to mention that there aren't none. They're an annual thing in the foothills. Even the small ones that they do along the highways to prevent roadside fires produce conditions with air quality levels that are unhealthy. The central valley already has air quality so bad that it sometimes seems like a picture of LA before CARB, it's not hard to understand why prescribed burns are difficult.
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:01 AM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


Sorry I read it wrong. I thought you said the controlled burns would be pitifully small. But yeah, that's completely wrong of them to limit to less than 30,000 acres a year.

I hate how Trump is all "California needs to rake the forests" when motherfucker, half the land in California is federal and most of the fires are on federal land. Rake your own damn forests.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 10:04 AM on September 9, 2020


The problem with having prescribed burns of a million acres a year is that that's about as much as burns in a bad year and that's going to be a tough sell. Obviously (?) it makes life safer for fire fighters, and that's not a trivial matter, but if someone tells me the solution a million acres of uncontrolled burning is a million acres of controlled burning then you can see why I'm not going to be that enthusiastic.

I'm looking out the window right now and it looks like Armageddon. It's 10AM, but looks like 6AM with orange skies. The air reeks of smoke. I don't just want fewer acres of uncontrolled fires, I want fewer acres of fires period. Unhealthy air that comes from prescribed burns is still unhealthy air.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:05 AM on September 9, 2020


The problem with having prescribed burns of a million acres a year is that that's about as much as burns in a bad year and that's going to be a tough sell.

A normal year in California is 4 million acres. A bad year in California is 8.

A million acres a year, 3:1 ratio of planned vs unplanned means you're going to be going down to 1.5 million.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 10:08 AM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


Your Childhood Pet Rock - you are correct. I obviously misread my original source.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:17 AM on September 9, 2020


The key thing is getting down to that point of diminishing returns. Controlled burns are polynomial in nature in terms of returns. I don't think Cali will need to stay at a million acres a year after clearing away a lot of the fuel that's been built up over generations. This paper using Western Australia as a case study has a good trend line of the correlation between prescribed burn areas and it matches up with an R2 of 0.77. Once you get past about 3/4 of a million acres the unplanned amounts don't really diminish anymore. In fact, a lot of the more recent years the burns have been in the region of 500,000 acres and the unplanneds have been down to almost nothing. I assume that experts predict Cali will need a million acres of controlled burns simply because there's more people and settlements in thee same area and the fuel will need to be thinned down in areas closer to the increased numbers of population zones.

I suspect the improvement of unplanned burns with a lowering of planned burns has also been due to the amount of money the state government has been plowing into the publicly owned electrical utility to ensure no pole started fires along with a general shift in attitude in the population. For instance, in Western Australia charcoal grills are practically extinct because it's illegal to use a solid fuel flame during a total fire ban and those often last weeks or even whole summers. The only BBQs you are allowed to use in an open space is a gas grill using gas fuel. You can't even use charcoal within the gas grill. The most frequent causes of fires in Western Australia are, in order, arson, lightning strikes, and accidental ignition (mostly improper disposal of incendiary sources like cigarettes).

We also have campaigns for people in risky areas that are realistic about fire danger. People need to decide in advance if they're going to prepare and defend or if they will leave early. Either is perfectly prudent but the decision needs to be made in advance. If someone can't evacuate swiftly due to bad access to the property then comprehensive information about the prepare and defend process is available.

Fire safety is a holistic thing. Living in Cali for half a decade I always thought people there were insane when it came to fire safety.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 10:40 AM on September 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


A normal year in California is 4 million acres. A bad year in California is 8.

I don't think that's correct. 2M acres burned in 2019, and that was an all time high. We'll beat that this year -- already have, in fact. But 8M acres in a year would be off the charts.
posted by Frayed Knot at 11:52 AM on September 9, 2020


2018, sorry, not 2019. Missed the edit window by seconds!
posted by Frayed Knot at 11:58 AM on September 9, 2020


A normal year in California is 4 million acres. A bad year in California is 8.

Where are you getting that from? The five-year average according to Cal fire is ~300,000 acres. Your estimate is 10x higher.
posted by mark k at 12:21 PM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


I think you're right and that I mistook some national figures for CA figures.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 1:44 PM on September 9, 2020


According to USDA Forest officials, the decision to temporarily close all 18 of the National Forests will be re-evaluated daily as weather conditions change. (CBS8.com) (Eight national forests had been closed on Monday night, and the remaining ten are closed as of 5 pm today.) USDA.gov news release; "National forests supply 50 percent of the water in California and form the watershed of most major aqueducts and more than 2,400 reservoirs throughout the state."
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:34 PM on September 9, 2020


if someone tells me the solution a million acres of uncontrolled burning is a million acres of controlled burning then you can see why I'm not going to be that enthusiastic.

If you have it in your mind that an acre of controlled burn is completely equivalent to an acre of uncontrolled wildfire then yes, I can understand the lack of enthusiasm.

What you need to understand, and communicate to your neighbours, are that these are not at all the same thing.

A properly conducted controlled burn is a cool fire. Sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it's a relative thing. If you run a controlled burn through a patch that's ready for it when the weather is right, then the fire takes out leaf litter and understory shrubs, and scorches tree trunks, but doesn't burn the trees.

It emits way less carbon dioxide, way less fine particulates and way less energy than a hot burn through the same patch in the context of an uncontrolled wildfire. It also does the forest topsoil good rather than totally sterilizing it to a depth of two feet. And the forest recovers quickly from a cool burn.

If you use indigenous-informed land management practices that involve maintaining a shifting mosaic of burnt and green patches, the effect you end up with is a forest that's more open under the canopy, with a much higher average moisture content in the remaining understory. This makes it much less likely that a random tree being set on fire by a lightning strike is going to have enough small fuels surrounding it to act as the epicentre of a raging wildfire.

I'm looking out the window right now and it looks like Armageddon. It's 10AM, but looks like 6AM with orange skies.

That's what happens when there's a high enough fuel load on the forest floor to make a hot intense fire with flames high enough to set the tree canopy alight. Once you get a fire front of burning canopy more than a few hundred metres long, it's virtually impossible to stop except by back-burning.

And if a sizeable burning ember lands in a patch of forest with a dry understory, it will almost always start a spot fire ahead of the main fire front. And canopy fires can loft burning embers kilometres into the air - embers big enough that they're still burning when they land, maybe ten, maybe twenty kilometres away from the fire front they came from.

Forests that have been properly managed with controlled mosaic burns are much less susceptible to ember-initiated spot fires, even under quite hot and dry weather conditions.

The air reeks of smoke. I don't just want fewer acres of uncontrolled fires, I want fewer acres of fires period.

Given your present circumstances that's an entirely natural thing to want. But what you need to understand is that it's not a choice available to you in a eucalyptus-dominated landscape. The options are forest management via frequent low-intensity controlled mosaic burns, or regular episodes of Armageddon. There is simply not a way to stop eucalypt forests catching fire. Not forever. It's what they do, and it's better for them and for you if you work with them on that rather than against them.

Unhealthy air that comes from prescribed burns is still unhealthy air.

But nowhere near as unhealthy as what uncontrollable canopy fires make.
posted by flabdablet at 7:42 PM on September 9, 2020 [10 favorites]


But what you need to understand is that it's not a choice available to you in a eucalyptus-dominated landscape.

Not just eucalyptus landscapes -- that is an unrealistic choice in most of the western US.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:07 PM on September 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


I will defer to people who live amongst them for experience with non-eucalypt forests.

As always, the knowledge about local landscapes that's deepest and most detailed and in greatest need of being both preserved and acted upon comes from the civilizations who have been living in those landscapes for the last several thousand years.

The idea that forest is forest, and that all forests can and should be managed in pretty much the same way, is very very limiting and won't often yield good outcomes. That said, there is a universal ecological principle that says that any fire-adapted forest pretty much has to be a fire-requiring forest and a fire-promoting forest. That requirement needs to be taken seriously. It can't be wished away without wishing away the forest as well, one way or another.
posted by flabdablet at 8:18 PM on September 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


@IDoTheThinking:
The new dichotomy as a Bay Area resident is:

A) Close your windows to keep out smoke but the heatwave makes it a hotbox

B) Air out your home to cool off at dusk but also let wildfire smoke come into your home

This will get worse every year...

Starting to realize this is the new West Coast dichotomy, not just Bay Area
> I'm sick of it looking like I live in Mordor.

@weatherdak: "There's so much burning right now on the West Coast. Just dreadful satellite imagery."

> The whole climate/forest/fire-management issue is complex.

it's that easy!*
posted by kliuless at 10:26 PM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


Lightning storms ignited more than 500 fires across California three weeks ago, mostly on the morning of August 17. Outside aid was not called in when these events were forecast, only once they had come to pass and local resources were overwhelmed. Individual fires that could normally have been contained instead propagated and merged into record-breaking complexes.

The 29 wildland fires that started in Butte County that morning were all contained under 1000 acres. When the evacuation orders were lifted, I checked out the cluster closest to here. The edge was marked by a hose lay and a pink swath of retardant. Beyond, the forest floor was black and smoldering. Low vegetation was brown from the heat, but not blackened; crowns of mature trees remained green. This was the sort of fire to which native species are adapted and which the Maidu historically set along with their seasonal migration.

In neighboring Plumas County, fires that started August 17 merged September 5. As of yesterday morning, they had burned 40843 acres in 22 days. Then high winds blew embers across the Middle Fork of the Feather. The fire took off on the upslopes into the canopy, burning 32 miles and 210,000 acres in 24 hours, and destroying thousands of homes in eastern Butte County.

This is the sort of stand-replacement fire to which native species are not accustomed. Part of the problem is anthropogenic warming, increased evapotranspiration, and ahistorically dry surface fuels becoming receptive beds for windblown embers. Another part of the problem is unsustainable stand density, where suppressed understory trees and shrubs that should have been eliminated decades ago instead compete with overstory trees for water, stressing them, and leading to widespread mortality -- especially in the southern Sierra as feloniousmonk mentions.

Loggers do not want to solve this problem with controlled fire. They want to use their heavy equipment, across the street from me every 6 a.m., to buzzsaw and chip and haul away the smaller-diameter non-merchantable timber. And salvage the hundreds of thousands of snags from the 2018 Camp Fire and now the 2020 Bear Fire as well.

Environmentalists have been the ones pushing for controlled burning instead of building roads and landings everywhere. The Sacramento River Watershed Project used controlled fire on a hillside with 30-40% slopes to demonstrate that it could be done. There is widespread community support for this sort of thing here, especially after seeing how fuel reduction projects around Magalia protected facilities like the school.

People have always lived in these woods and will continue to live here, but it will require accepting fire as our cohabitant just as our predecessors did. Houses will have to be built with non-combustible materials and defensible space. Ladder fuels must be managed to prevent crowning. Then it will be safe to burn off a few seasons' litter and undergrowth during the rainy season instead of waiting for a hundred years of forest to go up all at once.

California's oak savanna and mixed conifer biomes have been shaped not only by the wet-winter/dry-summer climate but also by thousands of years of introduced low-intensity fire. USDA's campaign to remove traditional fire has left native species maladapted to their own landscape and led to the non-traditional fires we now see. We who live here increasingly understand this and are managing our own forests accordingly. The problem is getting our federal neighbors to collaborate in restoring the pre-colonial ecosystem and managing it for long-term sustainability.
posted by backwoods at 11:22 PM on September 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


Hand in hand with burns, another way to restore the landscape is to reintroduce beaver, which reduce the danger of fire by holding moisture on the landscape, as Emily Fairfax shows in this awesome little video.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:56 AM on September 10, 2020 [1 favorite]




Near real-time geographical fire information via satellite from NASA:
FIRMS (Fire Information for Resource Management System)
posted by carter at 2:29 PM on September 10, 2020


Sometimes when you live in a space you don't get to choose "less fire" or more accurately, you do that and then end up with what you're suffering right now.

I live in Australia. In a city. I'm a few miles (three maybe?) From the city centre. Most summers there are controlled burns in the bush area a suburb over, and literally on my campus. That is the price for living here. I don't get to choose how this land evolved for millennia. I don't get to choose how eucalyptus functions, or bush in general. A few days every summer for burn offs where the air sucks is preferable to years of no burns and then bushfire ripping through and destroying so much and weeks upon weeks of bad air quality. It's preferable to fire tearing through the tree crown across ridges faster than anyone can leave.

The desire for less fire or no fire is what got this situation as bad as it is, combined with the intense exacerbation of climate change. It is also a huge disrespect for the land you are living on, are a part of, and symptomatic of how we got here in the first place. Ignore the connection between you and the literal actual land you live on and pretend it's all some mythical forest that needs no fire, and you destroy the land and yourself.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:17 PM on September 10, 2020 [4 favorites]


The 2020 fire season has been record-breaking, in not only the total amount of acres burned at just over 3 million, but also 6 of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred this year. - California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). (Officials have been keeping what are considered accurate records since the '30s.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:27 PM on September 10, 2020


Eucalyptus trees are not native to California. Australia has many similarities to California climate-wise, but nothing should be taken one-for-one in terms of fire management without careful consideration.

Obviously, controlled burns need to form a more significant part of the answer. Equally obviously, global climate change is an important factor in wildfires and solutions will have to be dreamed up that go further than native land management techniques of the past and into fully informed, collaboratively handled land management techniques of the future.

And look, I get a little salty about this because I have been through the fires that almost took out San Diego (sort of referenced in the article but yeah, somewhat less of a what-if than was framed). Maybe Californians have something to learn about behavioral responses to fire from Australians, but do please recognize that it's a really painful and visceral set of memories that we're working from.

I've done the 'stare at the line of flame outlining the ridge of the hills from the valley below' and I've done the 'watch the walls of what are unmistakably houses fall into each other from a few short miles away' and I've done the 'ash falling so thickly and so dangerously that you can't even drive a car to get away'. I'm still in favor of controlled burns and innovative ways to make wildfires less deadly. I'm also sympathetic to my friends and family who need a little more before they're won over.
posted by librarylis at 5:57 PM on September 10, 2020 [1 favorite]


Eucalyptus trees are not native to California.

Indeed. But they're present now, in numbers and concentrations large enough that the only realistic way to think about them is as a forest species, and unless there's a serious move to eradicate them altogether then they need to be dealt with on that basis. Importing some indigenous management knowledge to go with your imported trees therefore strikes me as a good idea.

But apart from the usual invasive-species advantage, the main reason eucalypts do so well in California is because it does have a similar climate to the parts of Australia that they are native to. Which suggests to me that there's a very high likelihood that Californian forests as they were before the importation of eucalypts were already fire-adapted and therefore fire-dependent and fire-promoting.

And what that means is that Californian indigenous knowledge should be the primary source for land management policy. Trying to manage fire-adapted forests primarily by suppressing all the fire all the time involves an awful lot of magical thinking.

I've done the 'stare at the line of flame outlining the ridge of the hills from the valley below' and I've done the 'watch the walls of what are unmistakably houses fall into each other from a few short miles away' and I've done the 'ash falling so thickly and so dangerously that you can't even drive a car to get away'. I'm still in favor of controlled burns and innovative ways to make wildfires less deadly. I'm also sympathetic to my friends and family who need a little more before they're won over.

Me too. Which is exactly why, whenever this topic of conversation comes up amongst friends and family (and MeFi is a bit of both for me, to some extent) I do my level best to advocate for sane and evidence-based land management that works with, rather than against, the nature of what it is we'd like to manage.

There's a colonial idea that mainly seems to have come out of Europe, but is certainly quite prevalent in both Australian culture and such US culture as I've experienced via its saturation of assorted Australian media, that human beings are in charge of what happens on this planet and we have not only a God-given right but a God-given capacity to impose our will on it as we see fit.

I think that anybody who has lived through a major fire, or a major flood, or a major storm or earthquake or eruption or tsunami or avalanche or mudslide, knows in their guts that this is nonsense. If we take the rest of the ecosystem on as some kind of opponent, it will win. That's just how it is, and we need to get better at dealing with it.

The alternative is for our species to encyst itself into tiny tiny little zones that we do control, be those bunkers or space colonies or whatever other teenage boy science fiction fantasy the movers and shakers of the day still cling to, until our inevitable failure to learn not to shit where somebody else is eating just straight-up kills us in our nests.
posted by flabdablet at 8:18 PM on September 10, 2020 [1 favorite]


flabdablet: "There's a colonial idea that mainly seems to have come out of Europe, but is certainly quite prevalent in both Australian culture and such US culture as I've experienced via its saturation of assorted Australian media, that human beings are in charge of what happens on this planet and we have not only a God-given right but a God-given capacity to impose our will on it as we see fit."

Yes - and also, as the article points out, a militaristic mindset, which frames the situation in terms of defeating an enemy and eradicating danger rather than working with natural processes. It reminds me of a lot of John McPhee's book The Control of Nature, especially the first section, about the Army Corps of Engineers trying to control the river.
posted by kristi at 10:05 PM on September 10, 2020 [1 favorite]


I get salty about it because none of this is new and different knowledge. It is, indeed, the same repetitive colonial mindset that says you can somehow live in an environment and not have to deal with the realities of it. That if we build better houses and roads and infrastructure that somehow the realities of living with the environment will go away.

Even if there were no eucalyptus trees becoming firebombs, it is still a fire tended environment. The 'management' of colonisers made it worse. I am sympathetic to air quality being a problem, but I am not sympathetic to anti-knowledge agendas that try to replicate farming environments from half a globe and hundreds of year away in a space that does not work like that. Be it flood, or fire, or quakes, or cyclones, the world is bigger and weather is badder than any individual one of us could ever be, and all we have done as a species is increase the volatility.

Pretending air quality from controlled burns is the same level of bad as uncontrolled burns is not helpful. Ignoring the way controlled burns help far far more is unhelpful. Facing the reality of the land we are on, including the knowledge of the people who inhabited it prior to industrial colonisers destroying water courses and wildlife, is not easy if you want to prioritise your own self. It demands collective experience and thought and empathy.

Be it the militaristic mindset, zero tolerance, or genteel English landlord ignorance, the result of ignoring the knowledge we have - from the first nations people, from common landscapes - is only going to make the situation worse.

(I think I was in primary school when I first learned about fire tending environments - at school and at home and experience since I lived or visited bush areas a lot, and that absolutely makes a difference in how people respond to controlled burns and fires)
posted by geek anachronism at 10:34 PM on September 10, 2020 [1 favorite]


While doomscrolling for updates on the most destructive fire of this terrible season, I came across this recent University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources publication on tree mortality and fire. It describes how 20th century fire suppression, overabundant fuels, and climate change have combined to produce uncharacteristic wildfires more intense than those to which Sierra forests are adapted. It goes on to describe ways to mitigate fire risk on one's own property such as prescribed burning. I found it to line up with and tie together what I've learned from the Resource Conservation District, the Fire Safe Council, and Maidu leaders as well as my own lived experience. The publication includes dozens of references for those who want to dive more deeply into the subject of this thread.
posted by backwoods at 2:32 AM on September 11, 2020 [2 favorites]


There's an interactive tree mortality map viewer for California, here: https://egis.fire.ca.gov/TreeMortalityViewer/
posted by carter at 9:09 AM on September 11, 2020


Also, these stories really need to stick a "Northern" in front each California reference. I'm 40, and this SoCal season is just like almost every season I can remember.

That's what is so scary, though? I live in a place that's damp as hell year round, where the temperature almost never rises above 75F. I was under an evacuation warning two weeks ago! The fire didn't ultimately reach us, and the warning was lifted, but... discovering that random lightning strikes can ignite coastal forest that's usually bathed in marine layer fog is genuinely shocking to people who live here.
posted by grandiloquiet at 9:31 AM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]


Damn straight prescribed burns work and I can't believe that CA isn't at the forefront of this.

Yeah, why is everyone so dumb?

As usual, it's complicated.

It's pointed out, there are a confluence of factors, many of which individually are perfectly understandable and would be lauded by many here. Add them together, and all of a sudden, prescribed burns face near insurmountable litany of barriers to ever happening. An example of everyone doing more or less reasonable things, yet in aggregate, end up creating undesirable results.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:54 PM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]


President Trump has dismissed concerns over climate change on a visit to fire-ravaged California, telling an official there it would "start getting cooler". (BBC, Sept. 14, 2020) Blazes in California, Oregon and Washington state have burned almost 2m hectares (5m acres) of land and killed at least 35 people since early August. Climate change sceptic Mr Trump blames the crisis on poor forest management.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:01 PM on September 14, 2020


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