Column: California’s fire problem: Is it mostly a people problem?
The portmanteau word “firenado” is racing through social media the way mega-fires are racing across Western landscapes. Char Miller thinks it’s a great term. He’s a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, and this year’s brutal fire season is giving him plenty of material. The changing nature of fire, and its consequences, is Topic A at meetings of the Society of American Foresters, of which Miller is a member, and it’s also a fundamental part of his forthcoming book, “America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands.” His conclusion after studying fire phenomena is that managing fire requires managing people. Good luck with that.
How do the current fires, like the Lake County fire, underscore your premise that we are facing a new kind of fire?
The explosive nature of the fire that moved so fast and so furious and seemed to be outstripping the capacity of firefighters to control it. Everybody seems baffled. That very bafflement lies at the heart of our misunderstanding about what fire is doing in the West, which is to disrupt social institutions, challenge our capacity to think about what we’re looking at.
What are those challenges?
Lake County didn’t have this kind of population 50 to 70 years ago, which is no less true in Southern California. These fires [are] not only big and fast-moving; the fact that they’re overrunning human settlement is new. The inability of people to evacuate rapidly enough is testament to the inability to understand the power that fire has when you set these communities in fire zones.
We have a zero-sum attitude toward nature: As we advance, it’s supposed to back off.
I’m fascinated by how we got to the point that we think that simply living in places gets rid of not just fire but wildlife, biodiversity, that the things we find threatening and dangerous would simply disappear by our mere presence there. People appreciate nature stripped of its dangers — or [as] they imagine it to be — without taking into account the very things that make that landscape natural. You live in Big Bear or Idyllwild to find yourself in nature, which [you think] is more beneficent than the valleys until fire shows up, then suddenly the dangers are re-manifest.
I blame Walt Disney!
There’s a lot to that. In my environmental history class, I teach “Bambi” to teach students the role the media play. Every time, one or more students will say, “When I told my parents we were watching ‘Bambi’ in class” — these are juniors — “[they] said, ‘I’m not sure you should watch that movie. It’s too upsetting.’ ” The film has a powerful impact on our cultural imagination. The big fire in it is emblematic of the assumption that humans and nature are separate, that humans have despoiled the natural.
Beyond climate change, what’s changing fires?
Drought. It may be a manifestation of climate change, but it has its own role. In the grip of drought, forests recognize the climate is shifting. Certain species are trying to move to higher elevations [more] capable of supporting them. Beetles are not getting wiped out because winters are not long or cold enough, and they are boring their way through millions of trees. The beetles are making it difficult for firefighters to respond to fast-moving, erratic conflagrations. Colorado, California — millions of [acres of] deadwood means fires have the capacity to blow up trees and that sprays the energy and the flame.
Conservatives say that environmental rules banning more timber cutting create this danger.
The notion that if we were only harvesting more wood somehow fire would disappear misses the larger point. When we were cutting a lot of timber in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, there were large fires and devastating fire seasons, too. It depends on what we want. If we cut wood, would there be a market for it? It’s cheaper to import wood from other places. You’d be cutting and dumping, and that’s hardly a benefit. More effective high-yield forestry, where you are cutting defensively, has the benefit of making healthier and more resilient landscapes while giving communities a fighting chance. It’s not going to solve everything, but it does pose the possibility of environmental stewardship and making communities more fire-wise.
As fire risks increase, the money to combat them hasn’t. Even after massive fires, San Diego County voters wouldn’t tax themselves to pay for a county fire department.
It’s baffling why San Diegans decided they were somehow immune from the real costs — fiscal, human and natural — from fires. Policymaking needs to be wedded to the science behind firefighting. It’s an irresponsible notion that there is no social compact between you and those who are coming to rescue you. We say we love the firefighters, but we don’t support their work because we don’t want to pay taxes.
How should firefighters’ expectations and jobs change?
In every story about large fires, there’s a discussion: Why aren’t there enough firefighters? Why are we not throwing enough resources at these? In part because of the political constraints. National and state firefighting organizations have faced budget reductions because the prevailing ethos is that small government is better. Now we’re seeing limitations to that rhetoric.
Second, the expectation [of those] living in a forested landscape is that someone is going to come and protect me. Well, that puts the firefighter in extreme danger. To live in a place wrapped around by trees is basically putting kerosene around your home.
Third, there’s the assumption that we’ll just drop water or retardant. Water and fire retardant don’t do much in the face of a 60-mile-per-hour wind.
I learned from firefighters in the 1991 Oakland fire, when the winds are 10 miles an hour, you’re a firefighter; at 25 miles an hour, you’re an observer. That’s not a good image in a can-do society, but that very can-do notion is part of why people decide firefighters aren’t doing enough.
Firefighters will take on extraordinary dangers, but should we create a landscape that forces them to do that? A reevaluation seems way past due.
Are firefighting agencies acknowledging the new nature of fires?
I think they are. This summer has been a tipping point in which Cal Fire and the Forest Service have begun to talk about climate change and a transformed landscape of fire that probably existed for the last 10 or 15 years but [that] they didn’t articulate that way. That makes it possible to address how we might fight [fires], what kind of budgets we [need] and the ways we need to rein in our expectations.
Politicians are not going to say, “No more building in the urban wildland interface,” and the real estate economy is not going to roll over either.
I lay the blame on zoning commissions and real estate developers, for whom there is apparently no place that is unbuildable, whatever the cost. Well, we’re paying the cost. Local governance needs to take a long look at what it’s supporting.
The state now has a small fee on those living in the wildland-urban interface for educational efforts to convince people defensible space is a good idea. I would argue for a more substantial fee to supplement [the budget for] Cal Fire or for more robust fire education. In Oakland, firefighters who fought [the 1991] fire look around and see bigger houses in the same [area]. Roads haven’t gotten wider [to accommodate] bigger fire trucks. It’s even less protected today than in 1991, which means policy did not line up with the realities. That concerns me most. We’re so confident of our ability to manage nature that every time a big fire blows up, we don’t draw the contrary conclusion, which is, we don’t control anything.
If you were in charge, what would the urban-wildland interface look like?
There would be fewer people living there. That would mean the local policy wonks actually got a backbone. For those who live there, I get it that you love to see the trees, but build out defensible space. Some of the management is to govern ourselves. Some is to shape nature in a way that decreases the risk of fire.
Individual property rights play a large role in this.
“The county can’t tell me what to do; the town can’t tell me what to do.” When you wave that flag, everybody snaps to salute. That makes it difficult for firefighters. Lincoln Bramwell, chief historian of the Forest Service [and a former firefighter], tells about racing uphill carrying 80 or 90 pounds in intense heat, and the [home]owner comes out when they’re about to cut down the trees surrounding her house to give her a chance of keeping her home, and she says, “Stop! This is nature!”
If [we] cannot shape policy in ways that are more community driven than individually defined, issues become even more problematic when you have climate being disrupted and fires roaring over the ridge.
The Los Angeles firefighting scheme is integrated from the federal agencies through the state down to local departments. They are all cross-trained. This is probably the most robust firefighting force in the world. You have incredibly well-trained individuals, and even so, you have fires like the 2009 Station fire that blew beyond their capacity to fight it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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