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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Exhausted and hungry, some 14,000 firefighters have been working 24-hour shifts battling deadly California wildfires and becoming resigned to fire seasons that start earlier, burn longer and unleash increasingly unpredictable blazes.
“There’s a lot going on up here, endless fires, and they’re all characteristically pretty much the same—windy, hot and dry,” firefighter James Sweeney said before heading out for a meal and a nap.
Mr. Sweeney, from St. Petersburg, Florida, is a “hotshot,” part of an elite team of highly trained wildland firefighters who spend the fire season battling the fiercest blazes in the country.
Weary after more than a day on the fire lines, the 43-year-old said when his Gila, New Mexico-based crew does leave California, he expects to go north into Oregon, where new fires are kicking up.
“These days it’s crazy,” he said. “We give up our whole life all summer.”
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.
In early August, twin fires being treated as one incident north of San Francisco became the largest wildfire in state history, destroying 443 square miles—nearly the size of the city of Los Angeles.
For many of the firefighters slamming down 9,000-calorie meals between shifts, the nonstop effort has become routine.
Last year, a fast-moving series of fires in Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco, and elsewhere in Northern California killed 44 people and destroyed more than 8,000 structures. Last December’s Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara burned almost 440 square miles, becoming the largest wildfire in California history.
In his 19 years on the job, Cal Fire Captain Chris Anthony said the most significant change is that hotter, drier conditions now mean that firefighters are trained to take a “tactical pause” to reconsider before charging in against the flames.
“Fire has become a lot more unpredictable,” he said. “In the past we could plan, but these days a fire can take a sudden and deadly turn.”
That is what happened July 26, when the fire near Redding pivoted and exploded in size, taking down hundreds of homes and killing five people, two of them firefighters. Another firefighter was killed earlier in the month battling a giant fire near Yosemite National Park.
Firefighter Jason Campbell was on the front lines near Yosemite when the Carr Fire destroyed his home, an RV and a boat near Redding. Redding Police Chief Roger Moore also lost his home.
Captain Jarrett Grassl, a 19-year veteran who works for the Higgins Fire District in Northern California, said his crew ran into homeowners trying to save their own properties. The threat to homes reflects the shrinking divide between wilderness and urban areas.
“Every year it seems to be a bigger problem,” Mr. Grassl said, in 110-degree weather with zero precipitation.
Fighting wildfires is almost always dangerous and grueling, but experienced firefighters said the Carr Fire has been even hotter, drier and more erratic than they are accustomed to.
Crews used shovels, hoses and chain saws to corral giant walls of flame that burned through canyons and up steep gulches. The air was thick with smoke and dust as they hauled heavy gear up and down unstable hillsides, grabbing gulps of water whenever they could. They largely worked in silence, with the sound of crashing tree limbs and roaring flames drowning out radios.
Nevada County Fire Captain Nathan Menth calls California’s weather system “the prolonged summer.” Replenishing fire hose gear after spending the night protecting a Redding neighborhood, he said he was surprised by how quickly the fire spread.
“The winds came in,” he said. “It was out of control.”
But 13 years into his career, that chaos is something he has come to expect.
Just a month into the budget year, California has already spent more than one-quarter of its annual fire budget, at least $125 million, state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Mike Mohler said.
Following years of drought and a summer of record-breaking heat, immense tracts of forests, chaparral and grasslands have become tinder that allows even a small spark to explode into a devouring blaze, authorities said.
Governor Jerry Brown repeated predictions from fire officials that California can expect a future of devastating fires, in part because of climate change. He told reporters that “nature is very powerful, and we’re not on the side of nature.”
Yet researchers are quick to 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 including the Carr Fire. 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.”
Another counterintuitive trend is that the fires have grown worse even after intense rains brought California out of a historic drought.
SFGate helped explain why: “No matter how damp a winter may be, a hot summer could dry out or kill vegetation and become easier to burn. Last year, the state had a wet winter—a rarity that came after a several years-long drought that Governor Jerry Brown had declared was finally over. California still experienced its hottest summer on record several months later—and saw its largest fire ever scorch Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties in Northern California. This past year, the winter was unseasonably dry, and experts say that means the 2018 fire season could grow more intense.”
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.”
Cal Fire now has a goal to clear 20,000 acres per year, but it will likely take a decade or more to start seeing results. Also, factors of higher temperatures and more people living in areas prone to wildfires make attempts to catch up increasingly difficult.
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 common 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.