It is striking how often fire ecologists and climate scientists, when asked about conditions across the American West, describe half the nation as a “tinderbox.” The West is currently experiencing its worst drought in 1,200 years, which means that the last time the region received as little water as it has in recent years, the continent as a whole probably had a population of just a few million; today the West alone is home to almost 80 million. California’s spring was the most arid in its recorded history, which stretches back 125 years, when the state was home to one million, not 40 million. These are conditions that fire loves, and much of the flammable West is still months from its seasonal peak.
In the Southwest, though, the peak comes sooner, and the most spectacular fire of 2022 in the United States so far was sparked there not by lightning or campfire or arson but by those laboring to prevent fire disaster. In January in New Mexico, the U.S. Forest Service began “a pile burn of hazardous logs,” according to a self-lacerating report issued on June 21 — a “controlled” fire that smoldered underground for months, through snowstorms and freezing temperatures, then emerged on April 19, when conditions were ripe for spread.
In the Arctic, these are called “zombie fires.” On April 23, the Calf Canyon zombie fire merged with another fire, called Hermits Peak, which had also been started by the Forest Service as a “prescribed burn” but had been quickly hijacked by wind and was declared a wildfire just four hours after ignition. The merged fire has now burned through more than 341,000 acres, larger than the city of Los Angeles. Its footprint stretches 45 miles north to south and 20 miles east to west, making it now the largest in state history.
Fires can be salutary — for the local ecology and for preventing future fires — so long as they don’t threaten homes and communities. But the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak complex hasn’t been a “good fire”; at least 300 homes and more than 900 total structures have been destroyed, and thousands of residents have been displaced or evacuated, including the students and staff of United World College and inmates from a local county jail.
In its 80-page autopsy, the Forest Service offered a blunt self-assessment: We were blindsided by warming. “Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered,” Chief Randy Moore wrote in the introduction. A zombie fire like Calf Canyon “was nearly unheard-of until recently in the century-plus of experience the Forest Service has in working on these landscapes. Fires are outpacing our models.”
That doesn’t mean that climate change has made all prescribed burns unsafe, only that much more care needs to be taken in starting them, and that even then, risk cannot be eliminated entirely. “We keep thinking we can fix it and it will go away,” the fire historian Stephen Pyne said. “There is no fix,” he said — no way to live in the American West now without fire. “This is a long-term relationship,” he went on, requiring a whole bundle of approaches to “get fire back on the land,” as he put it. “It’s maintenance. This is like getting annual flu shots. I mean, the flu viruses are not going away. We’re always going to have them. In the case of fire, we need them. It’s not just that it’s a threat. We have to live with the threat.”
It has become a commonplace to say about the challenge of climate change that we have the tools we need. In broad strokes, that is true, at least for the most immediate tasks, like decarbonizing the energy sector. But the tools aren’t perfect. They’re not magic. In part because decades of delay have ushered us into a world already upended by climate change, there are not always ideal or non-difficult choices left.
Since 2018, when a monstrous-seeming California fire season seemed to initiate a new era for fire in the West, there has been an upswell of enthusiasm for better forest management, tree-thinning and prescribed burns. Fire scientists and climate scientists — even former President Donald Trump and Gov. Gavin Newsom of California — got onboard. And they’re right: Decades of aggressive fire suppression have left the West burdened with billions of dead trees now called “fuel.” One estimate suggests that in California, 20 million acres, one-fifth of the state, might need to be burned or thinned.
“The reality is, there is no ‘no fire’ option,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There is no future in which we somehow manage to suppress all these fires that also does not have any prescribed fires.” That’s how he presents the landscape: not a choice between fire or no fire. “The choice is what kind of fire,” he said.
Even the billion-dollar agency Cal Fire can struggle to stop a blaze powered by onrushing Santa Ana and Diablo winds — it took thousands of firefighters three months to fully contain the August Complex fire in 2020, for instance. And prescribed burns are not a perfectly riskless proposition either. There is a failure rate, though Moore, the Forest Service chief, estimates it falls well below 1 percent.
Pyne puts the escape rate a bit higher: around 1 or 2 percent, he said, depending on the context; true wildfires, which evade the first response, escape, he said, about 3 percent of the time. Which is to say: An overwhelming majority of prescribed burns go basically as planned and do the job they are intended to do. But the risks associated with them are not altogether in another universe from the risks arising from fires started by accidental ignitions, most of which are also well managed. The same conditions that make explosive megafires more likely given lightning strikes and downed power lines also unfortunately apply to those fires intentionally set to clear brush and dead fuel.
“The long and short of it is that prescribed fire is a really powerful tool and it’s one that’s been historically underutilized and maligned, even, actively, in certain circles,” Swain said. “For the most part,” he added, it remains “a really safe and effective tool.”
In the Forest Service report, Moore sounded the same note: “Wildfires are threatening more communities than they ever have,” he wrote. “Prescribed fire must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat them. Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely.”
For Swain, the growth and intensification of the fire season may mean, overall, fewer opportunities for prescribed burns, but may also open up some additional windows for them at times of year that were previously too wet. We think of fire season as a monolith, or a few pages on the calendar, Swain said, and even those arguing that it is year-round now are simplifying a lot of seasonal variability. Really, he said, fire season is “a spectrum.” Safety is, too. “I think we are going to need to really think in a nuanced way about this. It’s not a question of, is prescribed burning safe or not, full stop. It’s a question of what is the cost-benefit analysis.”
But it’s also not quite as simple as identifying “safe” days, Swain said: “Certain agencies are not fully cognizant of just how dramatically the aridification in the past few decades has shifted the background state of things.” Plus, he said, “there’s just no one on staff to do it for most of the year when it would be safest to do it. In the middle of winter, for example, in a lot of places there isn’t staffing to do prescribed fire on a large scale. Cal Fire has a year-round staff. But the Forest Service or any of these other agencies that have seasonal firefighting staff, often the season that they’re off is the season when it might actually be most reasonable and safe to do some of these prescribed fires.”
The overwintering “zombie” threat is an additional challenge, of course — you can do a lot to make sure that conditions are good when you undertake a prescribed burn but have a lot less control of what those conditions will be months down the line, when a fire smoldering underground may suddenly surface again. “I mean, it’s tough,” Swain said. “Because we’re seeing novel background environmental conditions, it’s pretty clear that whatever assumptions we made historically are not safe to hold today.”
But the problem isn’t uncertainty, exactly, or the fundamental unknowability of the underlying dynamics. We know with some amount of precision how weather conditions can affect the flammability of the landscape on a week-to-week basis.
“Actually, a lot of this information does exist and could be leveraged, but we’re not doing it,” Swain said. “And that I think is one of my great fears about climate change — climate adaptation or non-adaptation — is that a lot of these things are theoretically doable, but we’re not doing them. If we don’t really get a handle on it and start — start leveraging new information and thinking in a temporally dynamic way, in the context of things that are changing over time — that’s going to be a problem. It’s not even enough to say we’re in some new normal and then recalibrate our norms to what’s true today. We’re going to have to constantly be recalibrating.”
“Inevitably, our future holds a lot of fire,” Pyne wrote recently. His goal: “a variety of techniques for a variety of purposes,” he said, including an “urban fire” approach to those burning in the wildland-urban interface, where a much more aggressive firefighting and fire-prevention effort could be targeted. He mentions Indigenous practices, cultural burning and agricultural burning, alongside forest management through mechanical thinning and burning. “Thinning plus fire is what’s really effective,” he said. “In a lot of places, they get the thinning done, but they don’t do the burning. So in a sense, you haven’t solved the problem. You may even have made it worse in some ways, because now you’ve got all these jackpot piles, like gopher mounds all over the countryside, waiting for a fire.”
But Pyne is most focused on what he calls “working with wildfires”: a more open and fluid approach that treats those that begin with an accidental or natural ignition almost like prescribed burns by guiding them toward useful spread. “I wish the agencies were a little more forthright about this” — that some remote fires can just be left to burn, he said. “It’s legal, it’s legitimate. But it can also seem evasive, a little sub rosa,” especially against a backdrop of growing fire anxiety across the West, driven not just by the fires themselves but the smoke they produce. “People get hay fever in the spring,” Pyne said. “Well, you may be dealing with smoke fever in the fall.”
“We don’t have complete control,” he went on. “We don’t control the weather. We don’t control the mountains. But, he added, “We can decide where and when to set a fire, we can do some prior treatments at a certain level, but we can’t treat tens of millions of acres across the West — much less, a couple hundred million acres across the West before we put fire in.”
Ultimately, “I think prescribed burning has got to be a part of it, but it’s not going to be the dominant one,” he said, pointing out that in most years, acreage consumed by wildfire is much larger than what’s burned in prescribed fires and that in 2021, prescribed fires burned nearly 1.3 million acres in the Southeast, where climate conditions make such fires relatively safe, compared with less than 200,000 in the Southwest, West, Mountain West and Pacific Northwest each.
“In the West, the complications are much larger,” he said — and growing, of course. “It’s a lot harder than it was say a 100 or 150 years ago,” because “the landscape is much more vulnerable to explosive fire,” he said. “We still haven’t grappled with the sense that it’s systemic. And I don’t think we ever will.”
More on fire
Richard A. Wilson, the former head of Cal Fire, told KQED he estimates about 70 percent of his land — “the whole northern end, including grassland, and pine and Douglas fir timberland — has burned in recent years. It was hit by the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire and the 2020 August Complex Fire, both among the largest fires in state history.”
Between June 22 and June 23, more than 66,000 lightning events were recorded in Southern California, more than the disastrous lightning storm that triggered the worst fires of 2020. But the event was much less catastrophic, fire-wise, because the storms were wetter and the land wasn’t quite as flammable.
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