I thought we could look back at our old posts about wildfires and see if there is anything new given this Fire year 2020. Of course, firefighters and people evacuating have all been impacted by Covid, but this is looking at the way we think about wildfire.
Here’s one from a year ago, an op-ed from the LA Times:
“We do fuel breaks because the premise is we’ve got a wildfire containment problem” when in fact, Cohen argues, we have a home ignition problem.
I’ve pointed out before that scientists don’t have any more authority to frame problems than anyone else. Here is a old post about framing the “living with fire” issue.
Just in the past few weeks, we can see other problems from fires besides home ignitions. You might be a truckdriver who couldn’t use I70 when it was closed due to wildfire. You might have had to evacuate a recreation site due to wildfire. As I’ve said before, evacuations can be difficult and unsafe.
But I also think that we have a bit of a philosophical conundrum here with these two current views.
View 1: Wildfires are natural and necessary for “the ecosystem”.
View 2: Wildfires are much worse (frequency, difficulty of fighting, acreage) due to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) (therefore unnatural).
It seems to me that the only way to incorporate these two perspectives is to use the concept of resilience (to disturbances, including AGW) (view 1), and be specific in what you are talking about- necessary for what part of the ecosystem? (View 2) To reproduce lodgepole pines? To provide habitat for black-backed woodpeckers? How much, where, and how intense do fires need to be to meet those “necessary” goals? Is it possible to achieve those specific ecosystem goals via PB (prescribed burning) or WFU (wildland fire use)?
If you subscribe to View 2, though, that climate is changing everything, then attempting to manage for the past (and leaving things alone as a solution) will not bring back the past (time’s arrow only works one way, but without AGW this argument hasn’t been successful with Historic Range of Variation aficionados) and we as a society are faced with deciding what it is we want, what we can change, and how much we are willing to pay to achieve those goals.
Meanwhile people who live in fire-prone areas (most of the western US) go about their business working on protecting their communities, improving notifications, and so on, as the more academic/media discussions about AGW seem irrelevant. Because most of us know there were fires before, and there will be fires again, even if everyone on the planet changed course immediately with regards to carbon, other GHG (greenhouse gases) land-use practices and other climate-changing activities. Then there’s the question of whether the climate would “change back” and how long that would take. Which we have, as with how much of what about wildfire is due to what aspect of climate change, really, no clue. How to proceed, acknowledging that we don’t and won’t know these things?
So what ideas should guide us forward? Here are some I’d put forward for us to discuss.
1. We’re all in this together. Everyone has a role to play. Let’s not get distracted by folks trying to divide us, e.g. “we can’t log our way out of wildfires” or Trump talking about raking.
2. Local people and governments have responsibility for maximizing firefighters’ chances of protecting infrastructure, through zoning, fuel management around homes, and access requirements.
3. Suppression people should play a key role in telling us what they need to succeed. Somehow I think we need to amplify their voices in the discussion.
4. PB should be increased, and should be guided by needs to protect (through strategic placement) human infrastructure and desired ecological conditions, e.g., endangered species habitat, and to foster resilience in a mix best derived at the local level (because they know what’s where).
5. Resilience should replace HRV and/or “ecological integrity” as a goal (even if it requires a (horrors!) new planning rule); and hopefully be easily integrated with the goals of other landowners.
6. If plant material needs to be reduced for fuels reduction, using it in some way is to be encouraged, rather than burning it onsite.
Sure, there are many moving parts. But as Michael Webber said about decarbonization, “Rather than finding someone to blame, let’s look for who can help.”