Wildfires on the West Coast are growing worse. The reason for this trend is more than a century in the making.
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They work 50 hours at a stretch and sleep on gymnasium floors. Exploding trees shower them with embers. They lose track of time when the sun is blotted out by smoke, and they sometimes have to run for their lives from advancing flames.
Firefighters trying to contain the massive wildfires in Oregon, California and Washington state were constantly on the verge of exhaustion as they tried to save suburban houses, including some in their own neighborhoods. Each home or barn lost was a mental blow for teams trained to protect lives and property.
And their own safety is never assured. Oregon firefighter Steve McAdoo’s shift on September 7 seemed mostly normal, until late evening, when the team went to a fire along a highway south of Portland.
“Within 10 minutes of being there, it advanced too fast and so quick…we had to cut and run,” he said. “You can’t breathe, you can’t see.”
That happened again and again as he and the rest of the crew worked shifts that lasted two full days with little rest or food. They toiled in an alien environment where the sky turns lurid colors, ash falls like rain and towering trees explode into flames, sending a cascade of embers to the forest floor.
“The sky was just orange or black, and so we weren’t sure if was morning or night,” he said. “My crew and I said that to each other many times, ‘What is going on? When is this going to end?’”
The firefighters tried to protect homes where they could, but the winds were so strong they could do little to stop the inferno as it spewed embers up to 10 miles away.
Instead, they worked to make sure people could get out, clearing trees off the roads, sometimes just feet from the flames. In California, Jesse Barnes said it felt like being in the stinging, acrid path of campfire smoke—for two days straight.
The speed of the winds and the dryness of the forest made these fires some of the worst he has seen. “There was no stopping it,” he said.
“We’re tired and covered in ash and soot all blowing in our faces, coughing from the smoke,” he said. But with so many wildfires burning, there was no one to take their places. “Once you’re there, there’s no relief,” he said.
Western states usually turn to each other for help, but that has been hard with the number of places under siege in this historic wildfire season, which has killed more than 30 people and destroyed thousands of structures in three states.
“Sometimes it’s like a game of chess,” said Bart Vawdrey, deputy fire chief in Draper, Utah, “and mother nature usually wins.”
This summer, California already has seen more land charred by wildfires than in any previous full year, with some 3.4 million acres burned since mid-August to mid-September. Five of the state’s 20 largest blazes on record have occurred this year.
Wildfires tearing through trees and brush, rampaging up hillsides and incinerating neighborhoods: The names and places change but the devastation is showing signs of becoming the new normal in California and throughout the West.
Why It Is Growing Worse
This year’s deadly fires in the United States had devoured a record of nearly 5 million acres as of September 20, a scale of devastation that fits into the longer-term trend of more acreage being scorched as temperatures rise.
Historically, fires in the region tended to burn low to the ground, eliminating dead conifer limbs, keeping competing species in check and prompting pine cones to open and disperse their seeds.
These days, fire crews are seeing increasing cases of massive “tree-torching” fires that engulf forests from the ground up through the canopy.
“Fires are not unnatural, but the kind of behaviour and the times, places and conditions they are igniting in are very, very unusual,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, who heads the Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, an Oregon-based advocacy group that promotes forest management to mitigate fire risks.
If fires sweep a forest too frequently, they will wipe out saplings before they can reach maturity. Too hot, and the fire can turn large areas into a moonscape barren of the seeds needed for new growth.
In California, a rise of 1.4 degrees Celsius in average summertime temperatures since the 1970s coincided with a five-fold increase in acreage burned annually, researchers reported last year in the American Geophysical Union.
The same dry conditions that aggravate the fires also undermine new forest growth.
Yet some researchers do not entirely blame warmer temperatures for worsening wildfires.
Time explained: “Urban development in vulnerable areas can make fires more devastating, and many of the state’s most destructive fires were started by humans…Max Moritz, a specialist in cooperative extension at the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, says hotter temperatures have made fire seasons longer, too. Scientists see a direct link between rising temperatures and the amount of dry brush and ample fuel, which makes the fires fast-moving and often more explosive.”
“There’s good, solid research linking temperature increases to trends in fire activity,” Mr. Moritz told the magazine. “But it’s really long-term trends.”
How We Got Here
Hotter temperatures. More urban development. People carelessly or deliberately sparking blazes. These are all factors in why wildfires are growing worse, but they overlook a major underlying cause—one that is over 100 years in the making.
In the late 1800s, the U.S. government established a policy of fire suppression. The Washington Post quoted a Joint Fire Science Program report that called wildfires the “moral and mortal enemy of the forest.” Wooded areas were also valued for their economic value as standing timber.
This thinking has colored America’s approach to forest management for decades. Fight any fire that starts instead of letting it burn. It also meant not using prescribed burns to clear out overgrowth. The result is forests thick with fuel waiting for a spark.
Scientists estimate that at least 10 to 15 million acres need to burn every year in order to return forests to a more natural condition, The New York Times reported. While the U.S. government recorded that 9.7 million acres burned in 2017 and 10.1 million in 2015, the public perception is that these numbers are way too high—and the issue is complicated by the amount of people living in heavily forested areas.
An article from The Washington Post explained how yesterday’s fire suppression policies impact blazes now: “What’s different about today’s fires is the intensity with which they’re burning. One reason is that fire suppression has changed Western forests. Take the ponderosa stands of the Southwest: Historically, low-intensity blazes, ignited by lightning or indigenous peoples, burned every five to 10 years, thinning the forest of young saplings and brush and leaving just 150 large trees per acre. Today, in the absence of flames, those stands are choked with as many as 1,200 trees per acre—too thick to walk through without risking a branch in your eye.”
Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter summarized the problem to KPIX 5: “After aggressively suppressing fires for the last 100 years we have put our forests in a state of peril.”
“By abstaining from controlled burns year after year, unchecked growth has multiplied, dried out and created a tinderbox,” the news outlet wrote. “The overgrowth has fueled deadly, out-of-control wildfires like the Carr Fire near Redding that took the lives of a four- and five-year-old.”
Mr. Porter was further quoted: “Prescribed burns alone will not stop that, but it is a tool that we can use to reduce the effect of those large fires.”
As concerns mounted about more frequent and severe seasonal fires, California ramped up its annual spending on forest fire prevention work to $200 million in the 2018 fiscal year from $40 million, according to a 2018 state report.
The U.S. Forest Service said it expects to spend around $250 million a year under its agreement with the state to treat half a million acres a year.
However, about 163 million trees have died in the state in the last decade due to drought and bark beetle infestation, mainly in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, creating huge swaths of flammable material, according to a 2019 Forest Service survey.
In September, a Forest Service official said the agency needed to double or triple its efforts in the fire-prone state.
“We’re working really hard but we know it’s not nearly enough,” Chris French, national forest system deputy chief, said in testimony before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources. “In places like California it means treating two to three times more acres per year than our current actions.”
Seeing the results of these fires is devastating—both with homes and businesses ruined as well as injury and death. Yet the wildfires on the West Coast reveal a trait of humankind. We try to fix problems and end up causing even worse problems in the process. Fire suppression is just one example. Antibiotics giving rise to worse and worse superbugs is another. War usually spawns more conflict in the long run.
As a rule, when human beings are involved, any attempt to solve problems begets more problems and makes the situations even more complex.
Ask: Are we doomed to live with worsening difficulties?
The better question is why? Man is capable of incredible genius, yet his very worst problems—war, famine, disease and increasingly deadly forest fires—remain. This is a question every person alive should strive to answer. Read Why Man Cannot Solve His Problems for more.
This article contains information from The Associated Press.