Doomed Planet

What California’s Fire Follies Can Teach Us

Blaming climate change for the infernos that have left scores dead is not only simplistic, but culpably unhelpful. This is because it distracts attention from what to do right now to ensure the killer bushfires do not happen again next summer

As is normal these days, the blame game is already being waged in the wake of the most recent 2018 Californian bushfires. On the one hand are the doomsdayers who claim the fires are a result of climate change. At the other end of the spectrum are those blaming “environmental terrorists” for preventing effective pre-fire management, such as forest thinning and fuel-reduction burning.

Depressingly, the climate changers include influential Australians such as Stuart Ellis, CEO of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authority, and Richard Thornton, director of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre. Both are quoted in The Guardian newspaper attributing the Californian fires to climate change, with no qualification. Fascinatingly, the second group includes Ryan Zinke, the US Secretary of the Interior, and Sonny Perdue, US Secretary of Agriculture, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service. Zinke makes no bones about his view that responsible preparation of potential fire grounds was prevented by environmental zealots, whom he brands “terrorists”.

As in most matters where science, politics and human affairs intermix, the reality is more complex than either of these contrasting opinions. As happens so often in the media these days, the single-issue commentators are not addressing the fire problem but are using alarm over the fires to promote another agenda.  For example, Australian bushfire research and emergency response agencies promote climate change anxiety to generate increased funding; the Trump administration wants to revive logging for economic and social  reasons, and cites overstocked, dying forests (locked away  by ‘green’ administrations) as the fundamental cause of the fires.

I am not an expert on the Californian situation, but I have been there many times and have many colleagues in the American fire community who have helped to educate me and shape my views. What follows is my perspective on what is going on, and what is likely to transpire. I am trying to look at the bigger picture, rather than focus on one issue or another.

For a start, California is a big place with a wide range of climates, vegetation and topographical situations and therefore a range of different bushfire challenges. Irrespective of any recent “climate change”, most of California has always experienced hot, dry summers and cool wet winters, and droughts have always periodically occurred. There is also (usually in late summer) the scourge of the infamous Santa Ana winds. These are hot, dry, strong winds originating in the desert country to the east that sweep down the Sierra Mountains into coastal southern California. This air mass is so dry, it acts on a bushfire like opening the door of a blast furnace. Furthermore, wind velocity often peaks between midnight and dawn, ensuring people in the path of a newly-started fire receive little warning and awake to be confronted by wind-driven flames.

There are essentially two different vegetation types in which bushfires have traditionally occurred in California. The first is the heath-like shrubland, called chaparral, comprising dense stands of highly flammable plants, mostly growing on the steep and highly-dissected coastal ranges.  Chaparral is a nightmare for bushfire managers because it cannot be burned safely for fuel reduction; it either will not burn at all, or it burns with a fire of uncontrollable violence …. and more recently it has been infested with exotic grasses that feed on disturbances such as fire. The nightmare is made worse by the fact that many of the rich and famous (Hollywood movie stars and so on) like to build their houses in this country — understandably so: they are above the crowded coastal cities and have lovely views out to the Pacific Ocean. On the other hand, houses built within chaparral are almost impossible to defend from fire, especially as they are built along ridge lines. Fierce fires sweep up these shrubby hills about every 15 years  or so.

The other main vegetation type, found in northern rather than southern California are the coniferous forests, mostly pine, but also redwood and Douglas fir. Most of these forests are dense second growth, having been heavily logged decades ago and regenerated … but then not professionally managed. Mostly they are privately owned, and over recent years the owners have been converting them to real estate. To my eyes, the standard of residential planning and bushfire regulation seems very primitive; whole suburbs are simply inserted into the forest, without any hazard-reduced zone between forest and houses, not even the most elementary of firebreaks. Yes, it is a lovely environment; but it is massively bushfire-prone. This is especially the case where the unmanaged forests in and around the houses are full of dead trees and carrying heavy fuel loads. This is the very situation is prevalent throughout northern California, and it is little wonder that uncontrollable fires are becoming a regular occurrence and are doing immense damage.

Fuel-reduction burning to reduce the bushfire threat is well-nigh impossible in chaparral country, but could be (and once was) done quite readily in the conifer forests. For centuries before European settlement these areas were regularly burned by the indigenous Americans, making them virtually wildfire-proof. Burning (along with grazing) was also carried out by early settlers, prospectors and timber cutters but these practices were brought to a halt after World War I (for the national forests anyway) when the US Forest Service came into being. There was a huge political controversy over fire policy at the time, with advocates of frequent ‘light burning’ on the one side, and those advocating fire exclusion on the other.

The opponents of light burning won: it was officially condemned in 1923. The  Forest Service adopted a fire policy in which no burning was permitted in the woods, and any fire would be immediately extinguished. Later this became known as the “Smokey Bear” policy, and it was so successfully marketed that even Walt Disney supported it. However, the consequences have become abundantly clear over the years. In the heavy fuels of long-unburnt forests, fire suppression nearly always fails and large high-intensity wildfires result.

Few modern American fire historians, managers and ecologists support the Smokey Bear policy these days. They would dearly love to instigate fuel reduction programs in the native forests, especially where residential areas and bushland are intermingled. Most federal agencies are today pro-light burning. However, in California this approach has never been successfully adopted. A number of factors apply.

The first is smoke. California has a serious air pollution problem (anyone who has visited Los Angeles or driven through the San Joaquin valley in August will know what I am talking about). Bushfire smoke is not itself toxic, and there is a significant difference between smoke palls from wildfires and the light, ephemeral nuisance smokes from prescribed burning, but when mixed with real pollutants, especially exhaust hydrocarbons, the overall situation is exacerbated. Consequently, California has draconian environmental laws aimed at reducing or controlling air pollution. Special permits are required for any prescribed burn, and these are almost impossible to get.

There is another factor. The ideal season for prescribed burning in northern California is the prime time for Santa Ana winds in southern California. This means that bushfire staff and resources are usually responding to wildfires in southern California instead of undertaking prescribed burns in the north.

Another problem is that the US has an astronomical investment in firefighting and wildfire suppression. It staggers the imagination to see the sheer number of firefighters, bulldozers, tankers and water bombers, plus supporting control, support and administrative centres, that are brought to bear on a wildfire in the US.  This vast firefighting machine has almost taken on a life of its own. Increasingly, it  gobbles up agency budgets and staff, leaving not much left over for other work, such as fuel-reduction burning.  The aviation industry has been the greatest beneficiary, and has become expert in manufacturing political and media support. The result is an ever-growing expansion of obscenely-expensive firefighting aircraft and support and servicing facilities.

The fire response monolith (known in the US as the ‘fire-industrial complex’, a term that harks back to President Eisenhower’s warnings about the ‘military-industrial complex’) now constitutes an enormously powerful political lobby for suppression. This complex is potentially threatened by changing the system from one in which the emphasis is on fighting fires to one where there is effective investment in fire preparedness and damage mitigation.  The most tragic aspect of this ‘privatisation’ of bushfire management in the US is that the outcome is not just more expensive, it is less effective.

Finally, houses in California (outside the major cities) are large, built on small blocks, and typically built of wood. In the new semi-rural subdivisions they are so  tightly packed that fires spread from one exploding house to its neighbour. The suburb has become the fuel. In this situation, staying to defend your home is unrealistic. Whole-town evacuation has become the norm — resulting, as usual, in many lives being lost in vehicles trapped by fast moving fires.

So where does all this leave California? To summarise: (i) the climate is conducive to bushfires; (ii) the vegetation is highly flammable, especially when dried out by Santa Ana winds or its northern equivalents; (iii) management policies favour emergency response over preparing potential fire grounds; (iv) increasingly, firefighters are relying on water/retardant dropping aircraft, despite the fact that they are useless in suppressing high-intensity fires; and finally (v) there has been a vast increase in the number of people living in fire-soft, fire-vulnerable townships at the bushland interface. These people generally are not bushfire-savvy, and do not appear to be well-versed in how to design and maintain a fire-resilient house and garden.

So the claim that the recent Californian fires are “the result of climate change” is so superficial as to be ridiculous. In fact, the slightly longer fire seasons currently being experienced there could be seen as a bonus, as they provides a greater window of opportunity for carrying out light burning in forests in which people live. I can remember when I lived in western USA in the 1960s, the American fire community was already keenly aware that it was about to face a bushfire crisis, thanks to the Smokey Bear approach. Nobody had heard of ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ in those days.

 The Californian bushfire situation is a complex and difficult one, and blaming climate change is not only simplistic, but unhelpful. This is because it distracts attention on what to do right now to ensure the killer bushfires do not happen again next summer. Worst of all, blaming climate change provides authorities with an excuse for flawed bushfire policies and programs.

Nor would I go so far as to call American environmentalists “terrorists”. Not these days anyway, and not all of them.  It is true that environmental activism if rife in California and has strong political backing: two years ago Governor Jerry Brown himself vetoed a fire-management bill that had bipartisan support but was opposed by green activists. On the other hand, American “greenies” in general have a more enlightened approach to bushfire management than do their counterparts in Australia. They seem to me to have made the effort to study fire history and modern fire ecology, as Australian greens mostly have not.  The green American land and wildlife manager, The Nature Conservancy, probably light-burns more hectares every year than the US National Park Service and promotes prescribed fire widely. (Our equivalent organisation, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, also has an enlightened attitude to the use of fire, putting itself completely out of kilter with anti-burning groups like the Wilderness Society).

Fuel reduction by itself is not, of course, the complete answer, but it is an essential component in a forest/land management system which has the aim of preventing high-intensity “killer” bushfires. It will be interesting to see if anything positive comes out of the 2018 Californian fires. What does it take, I wonder, to spark serious reform in fire polices and management? This is the third bad fire in California in the last 12 months, with many lives lost. You would expect some official reaction, but these things are hard to predict.

Take the Australian situation as an example. On the one hand, the experience in Western Australia has been encouraging: the shocking fires in 2015 and 2016 led to welcome changes in government policies and agency programs. However, in Victoria and New South Wales the bushfire situation is pretty much a photocopy of that in California. Victorians seem to have forgotten the lessons of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires and are blithely ignoring the recommendations of the Royal Commission that followed.

Another horrible bushfire disaster in Victoria or NSW  is just around the corner, and you can bet your boots that when it comes, it will be blamed on climate change.

Talking to colleagues in the US recently, there is one light on the horizon. When I first heard about this I had to smile, as it took me back 50 years to my salad days as a young forester in Western Australia. My principal mentors at the time were the old field staff men, most of whom had been around in the 1940s and early 1950s when the WA forest service had a facsimile of the Smokey Bear policy and prescribed burning was banned. This was not to say that no burning occurred … good field men have always found ways to circumvent bad policy. So, if a bushfire started, say from a lightning strike in the middle of a forest block, and if the conditions were right, instead of sending in a crew to put the fire out, they would allow it to burn out to the nearest roads, where the edges would be controlled and mopped up. OK, the result was a 1000 hectare fire, which didn’t look too good in the annual report, but the old field men could live with that, as they regarded it as 1000 ha effectively fuel-reduced, a bonus for them as firefighters in the years ahead.

A similar approach is now emerging in the US. They refer to it as the ‘box-and-burn strategy’.  Traditional suppression continues to be concentrated on high-value assets, but otherwise, so long as conditions are right, they draw a ‘box’ around a fire outbreak and allow it to burn out to defined and manageable perimeters. The outcome is cheaper and safer, and does not attract the sort of outcry that can block a set-piece prescribed burn. This is not a case of the discredited ‘let burn’ policy that was advocated back in the 1970s. It involves experienced and capable bushfire specialists, skilfully working a fire to ensure it does its job, but stays within the nominated boundaries.  To date (I understand) boxing and burning is still flying under the public radar.

But I am talking here about the larger bushfire scene in American forests. Nothing like this appears to be happening in California, at least in the highly populated areas west of the Sierras. Here, for all the reasons discussed above, we continue to see the traditional fire brigade approach. Here, bushfires are not regarded as a predictable event which can be forestalled or pre-empted, but as an emergency, requiring the full panoply of 20,000 firemen and squadrons of DC10s dropping retardant. It is a desperate situation, and is not going to get any better any time soon.

Blaming climate change is just too easy, and is getting in the way of what must occur: a revolutionary reappraisal of the way Californians live in and manage their forests.

Roger Underwood is a former firefighter and a district and regional manager with the Forests Department in WA.

6 comments
  • Timothy Daly

    What a great article! Exactly the reason I subscribe to Quadrant Bravo, Mr Underwood.

  • young bill

    +1

  • padraic

    An excellent article on the risk factors associated bushfires and the justifiable criticism of the media blaming “climate change” as the cause of the fires. The media never tells us who is lighting these fires, possibly believing in or assuming spontaneous combustion – which is a joke. So who is lighting them? climate change fanatics or other activists with an axe to grind against society? Why is the media so reticent about the actual cause?

  • whitelaughter

    thanks, have nothing to add, but also find articles like this of considerable value.

  • Philip OBrien

    Good article. Thank you Mr Underwood. Just the kind of analysis and knowledgeable commentary we need more of in Quadrant.

  • Ian MacDougall

    An excellent article from Roger Underwood, particularly for those like myself who live near forests of pyrophytes.

Post a comment