In the two weeks since it ignited, the Thomas fire has burned nearly 250,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and become the fourth-largest fire on record in California. On Thursday, it killed a firefighter. But as frightening as this beast of a blaze really is, the overall trends look even worse.
Prior to 1995, the United States averaged one “mega-fire” a year, according to the U.S. Forest Service, which gives that title to blazes that burn more than 100,000 acres. During the last decade, California has met that old average all by itself, while the United States as a whole is now experiencing nearly 10 such fires annually. Researchers predict that, by the middle of this century, twice the amount of U.S. land will burn in bad fire years than does today.
Of course it’s not just land that burns. Developments are springing up in ever more fire-prone forests, canyons and mountains. One in three U.S. homes — some 44 million residences — are in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, where they abut fire-prone forests and open space. California, along with Florida and Texas, has the highest concentration of homes in the WUI. And with rents skyrocketing in cities, developers are pushing into some of Southern California’s most flammable rural areas at an ever-increasing rate.
The Thomas fire will likely rage right past the winter solstice, marking yet another troubling trend. To date, the warming and drying climate has expanded the nation’s fire season by some 78 days overall. California firefighters already talk about their “year-round fire season.”
Not only are the conditions ripe for the Thomas fire to continue its devastation, but there’s a real possibility of more large fires breaking out in the coming months.
Southern California was parched, with Los Angeles recording just 4% of its historic average of rainfall since Oct. 1, even before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned last week that a strengthening La Niña weather pattern would likely lead to an unusually warm and dry winter in the region. A persistent high-pressure ridge in the Pacific has held back precipitation and cooler temperatures, leading some climatologists to worry that the state is about to fall back into a deep drought. California’s snowpack is at 34% of normal for this time of year.
Although the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has abundant resources to deal with normal wildfires in any month of the year, mega-fires that burn outside the historical fire season prove challenging for both the state and the nation. In the past, many wildland firefighters were college students earning money for tuition. During the winter, they’re in school, and the federal equipment needed to help battle fires may be offline, stored in warehouses.
At this point, it’s indisputable that more winter mega-fires are coming. Yet many of the stakeholders affected by wildfires of increasing size and frequency can’t look away from their narrow self-interests to focus on the crisis at hand.
Every bad fire season brings calls from the timber industry to increase logging in forests, overgrown after a century in which the United States snuffed every wildfire. It’s true that some of our forests have 10, 20 or even 40 times more trees than they had prior to the nation’s zero-tolerance policy toward wildfires, and that well-managed timber harvests can reduce the fire risk in some woodlands. But those who present such harvests as a win-win of business profits and a reduced chance of fire often neglect to acknowledge an obvious truth: Most of the vegetation increasing the risk is brush, deadfall and small trees that have little economic value, while the big, thick trees that hold the financial payoff can resist and survive most flames. Timber operations that harvest the big trees but leave the small ones may actually fuel big blazes, not mitigate them.
Like the timber industry’s supposed win-win solutions, some ranchers push managers of public lands to allow more cattle to munch down heavy loads of flammable grass to reduce the chance of fire. Here again there’s an obvious logical flaw: Overgrazing in many parts of the Southwest has allowed dense stands of trees to encroach on grasslands, in some cases leading to more severe wildfires rather than fewer.
Even thoughtful attempts to make communities more resilient to wildfires have spotty records. Certainly it’s smart to build homes with defensible space around the structure, use fire-resistant building materials such as metal roofs and keep flammable materials such as propane tanks and woodpiles away from the house. But those efforts are for naught if residents don’t diligently rake up needles and leaves, clean out their gutters and mow the grass, or if developers use their “fire-wise” construction to justify pushing homes into ever more combustible landscapes.
Meanwhile, as the wildfire problem worsens, California’s commitment to preparation is rather fitful. The state levies fines of up to $500 for homeowners who fail to clear dangerously fire-prone vegetation, and Cal Fire can seek restitution in the courts from people who negligently start wildfires. Last July, however, in a deal to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program, state legislators suspended a $150 fire-prevention fee that was charged to some 800,000 California residents who live in rural areas. (The Republican lawmakers who reviled that fee ought to take a look at the latest firefighting invoice.)
To deal with the trend toward larger, more frequent, year-round mega-fires, California will need to take a longer view. It will have to stand up to industries whose claims aren’t supported by science, to developers and planners who promote building into fire-prone landscapes, and to citizens who don’t want to foot the bill for living in a state filled with forests and fire.
Michael Kodas is the author of “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame” and associate director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder.