The Fire Next Time: Why the West Keeps Burning
Prescribed burning: fighting fire with fire
They looked like scenes from the end of the world. In 2020, California experienced its worst wildfire season in modern history.
There were nearly 10,000 fires.i
Over 850,000 people went without power. ii
Estimates of the economic damage went as high as $150 billion.iii
The largest fire...was the size of the state of Rhode Island.iv
The consequences were catastrophic.
Even worse: We know how to keep this from happening.
Summer in America is a time for traditions. Gathering together for barbecues. Fireworks on the Fourth of July. Aaaand the western part of the country catching on fire.
In 2020, there were nearly 26,000 wildfires in the West, which burned 9.5 million acres.v That’s the equivalent of burning down Switzerland...which we don’t recommend because the Swiss will shoot you.
Now, a big chunk of this is pretty much inevitable, especially in California. The state is prone to droughts; it has a dry, Mediterranean climate; it gets strong winds that help fan the flames; and it has lots of eminently combustible trees and plant life.
California is basically built to burn. And it always has—even in the years before fires were started by people trying to create Instagram content.
That’s not a joke. In 2020, the state lost over 22,000 acres to a fire that burned for over two months... because of a pyrotechnic malfunction at a gender reveal. vi
(It was a boy, by the way. Congratulations, Todd and Lisa!)
Scientists estimate that in prehistoric times, California was on fire so often that the amount of acreage that burned in an average year would qualify as a bad decade by today’s standards.vii In the 1700s, smoke coming from the West was so thick that Americans on the East Coast worried it was the apocalypse.viii
So, end of story, right? California just burns and we’ve got to learn to live with it.
Well, not quite. There are a lot of factors making it worse than it has to be. Over 2 million homes in California have been built near rugged areas “at high or extreme risk” from wildfires. ix And warming temperatures only compound the issue.
But those factors pale in comparison to the one that the vast majority of experts agreex is the root of the problem: California isn’t on fire enough.
Sounds crazy, right? But here’s how it works.
If you live in a place that’s destined to burn, your only hope is to make sure there’s not enough fuel—things like logs, dead trees, or brush—to let those blazes get out of control. And the way you get rid of that fuel is by first thinning the forest and then setting small, planned fires at times and places where you can keep them under control.
Unfortunately, for a long time, the U.S. Forest Service opposed controlled burns. Although it didn’t seem crazy at the time. They were traumatized.
In 1910, a massive wildfire—fanned by hurricane-force winds—took out more than 4,500 square miles of Idaho, Montana, and Washington...in a single weekend. It was so powerful that some of the soot ended up in Greenland.xi
In the wake of that devastation, the Forest Service vowed to never let it happen again—and began a policy of trying to extinguish all fires as soon as they popped up. Which meant... lots more kindling for future wildfires building up .
While the Forest Service has returned to doing some controlled burns in recent years, they’ve still got a lot of catching up to do. In 2015, it was estimated that there were 6.3 billion dead trees standing in western forests.xii
What does that mean for California? In 2020, the state’s department of forestry said it planned to do controlled burns on 30,000 acres.xiii The amount that experts say would be necessary to actually control the threat? About 20 million acres.xiv
There are lots of reasons more isn’t being done. It can take years to get permits for these burns. Many property owners worry that controlled fires will break free and wreak havoc — although research shows they almost never do.xv In fact, controlled burns are used throughout the southeastern United States, which has far fewer catastrophic wildfires as a result.xvi
There are also worries about the environmental dimension. Californians are concerned about smoke and their government officials are wary of the carbon emissions.
But here’s the thing: The choice isn’t between fire or no fire. It’s between fire you control or fire that’s gonna whoop your a**.
Nothing could be worse than the status quo. The amount of smoke that comes from out-of-control wildfires has given California days where the air quality is five times worse than Beijing.xvii
And if you’re worried about the carbon emissions from controlled burns...consider the alternative. California’s renewable energy policies are estimated to save the state about 30 million metric tons of carbon emissions a year.xviii The estimated amount of carbon emitted by just the 2020 wildfires alone? 112 million metric tons.xix
California can’t go on this way. To avoid future catastrophes, it’s going to have to quite literally fight fire with fire. And if it’s successful, it just might mean getting control of California’s second-worst type of disaster...behind the gender reveal parties. Obviously.
- 2020 Fire Season — CAL FIRE
- "Preventing Wildfires with Power Outages: the Growing Impacts of California’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs" — Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy
- "THE WILDFIRE CRISIS: Greetings from the 2020 Wildfire Season" (Jesse Roman, Angelo Verzoni, and Scott Sutherland) — National Fire Protection Association Journal
- 2020 Fire Season — CAL FIRE
- Wildfire Statistics — Congressional Research Service
- El Dorado Fire Incident Report — National Wildfire Coordinating Group
- "Prehistoric Fire Area and Emissions From California’s Forests, Woodlands, Shrublands, and Grasslands" (Scott L. Stephens, Robert E. Martin, Nicholas E. Clinton) — Journal of Forest Ecology and Management
- "The Cause of the Hazy Air" — New York Times
- The Increasing Risk of Wildfire and Insurance Implications (Dimitris Karapiperis) — National Association of Insurance Commissioners & The Center for Insurance Policy and Research
- "Common Ground on the Role of Wildfire in Forested Landscapes of the Western U.S." — National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis
- Blazing Battles: The 1910 Fire and Its Legacy — National Forest Foundation
- "Fix America's Forests: Reforms to Restore National Forests and Tackle the Wildfire Crisis" (Holly Fretwell and Jonathan Wood) — Property and Environment Research Center (PERC)
- "California May Need More Fire to Fix its Wildfire Problem" — Pew Charitable Trusts
- Barriers and Enablers for Prescribed Burns for Wildfire Management in California (Rebecca K. Miller, Christopher B. Field, Katharine J. Mach) — Journal of Nature Sustainability
- Prescribed Fire Lessons Learned: Escape Prescribed Fire Reviews and Near Miss Incidents — Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
- We’re Not Doing Enough Prescribed Fire in the Western United States to Mitigate Wildfire Risk (Crystal A. Kolden) — Fire Journal
- "Air Quality in Bay Area Worse Than Beijing Due to Camp Fire in Butte County" — KGO: San Francisco
- Assessing California's Climate Policies: Electricity Generation — California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO)
- Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Contemporary Wildfire, Prescribed Fire, and Forest Management Activities — California Air Resources Board
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- CAL FIRE
2020 Fire Season
- Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy
"Preventing Wildfires with Power Outages: the Growing Impacts of California’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs"
- National Fire Protection Association Journal
"THE WILDFIRE CRISIS: Greetings from the 2020 Wildfire Season" (Jesse Roman, Angelo Verzoni, and Scott Sutherland)
- Congressional Research Service
- National Wildfire Coordinating Group
El Dorado Fire Incident Report
- Journal of Forest Ecology and Management
"Prehistoric Fire Area and Emissions From California’s Forests, Woodlands, Shrublands, and Grasslands" (Scott L. Stephens, Robert E. Martin, Nicholas E. Clinton)
- New York Times
"The Cause of the Hazy Air"
- National Association of Insurance Commissioners & The Center for Insurance Policy and Research
The Increasing Risk of Wildfire and Insurance Implications (Dimitris Karapiperis)
- National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis
"Common Ground on the Role of Wildfire in Forested Landscapes of the Western U.S."
- National Forest Foundation
Blazing Battles: The 1910 Fire and Its Legacy
- Property and Environment Research Center
"Fix America's Forests: Reforms to Restore National Forests and Tackle the Wildfire Crisis" (Holly Fretwell and Jonathan Wood)
- Pew Charitable Trusts
"California May Need More Fire to Fix its Wildfire Problem"
- Journal of Nature Sustainability
Barriers and Enablers for Prescribed Burns for Wildfire Management in California (Rebecca K. Miller, Christopher B. Field, Katharine J. Mach)
- Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
Prescribed Fire Lessons Learned: Escape Prescribed Fire Reviews and Near Miss Incidents
- Fire Journal
We’re Not Doing Enough Prescribed Fire in the Western United States to Mitigate Wildfire Risk (Crystal A. Kolden)
- KGO: San Francisco
"Air Quality in Bay Area Worse Than Beijing Due to Camp Fire in Butte County"
- California Legislative Analyst’s Office
Assessing California's Climate Policies: Electricity Generation
- California Air Resources Board
Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Contemporary Wildfire, Prescribed Fire, and Forest Management Activities
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?” (ProPublica)
- “The Causes of California’s Wildfire Crisis” (National Review)
- “Setting Controlled Fires to Avoid Wildfires” (ScienceDaily)
- “California Residents Didn’t Want Controlled Burns Near Their Homes. Some of Those Homes Then Burned in a Wildfire” (USA Today)
- “Wildfire Hype, and Hope” (City Journal)
- “California’s Wildfire Policy Totally Backfired. Native Communities Know How to Fix It” (Mother Jones)
- Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire by Stephen J. Pyne
- The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan