Western Wildfires Through the Coastal Gaze: Esquire Article on Taking Better Care of Our Forests

I found the above video on the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project website while looking for a photos to illustrate the below Esquire article.. it relates to prescribed fire as practiced. And I liked the background music.


Here’s a story in Esquire by a reporter who covers many things. One thing I’ve noticed about the Coastal Gaze is that stories usually involve (at least peripherally) partisan politics and climate change. I don’t know if those bring in more clicks, or it’s just a habit. Certainly hiring lots of climate reporters, as did the WaPo, would incline people to frame stories through a climate lens.

In this article, two individuals were interviewed from Southern Cal and, perhaps not surprisingly, have a different take from what we usually hear in these discussions.

This from Stephanie Pincetl, founding director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA:

The area encompassing both Southern California and Baja in Mexico have what’s known as chaparral ecosystems: dry soil, hot weather, and short shrubs. But these two regions’ fire lives have played out very differently. “Right across the border, there are very similar chaparral ecosystems,” Pincetl said, but “that chaparral has not had the benefit of fire suppression, because the Mexicans simply can’t afford it. And it continues to exhibit this low intensity fire pattern, which does not kill the chaparral, but there are unsuppressed fires that occur on a relatively regular basis. And people don’t die. The houses aren’t burned. There’s not huge conflagrations. So how do we get back to that kind of chaparral, is the question.”

It seems to me that people could still die and houses still burn if they are in the way of low level fires.. at least that seems to be the case in grasslands.  Does anyone know more about this?

Miller is a AAAS fellow at USC. I think this is probably the first time that private property has been discussed as an obstacle to forest management..

Here Miller pointed towards a whole bunch of modern obstacles to forest management, be it prescribed burns, mechanical thinning, or “managed wildfires” (a naturally ignited fire that burns out in an unpopulated area). One issue is the fairly basic concept of private property. It’s one thing for the government to organize prescribed burns on land it owns. But of California’s 104 million total acres, according to a study Miller co-authored, 45 million—or 43 percent—are owned by the federal government. Local governments below the state level own another 27 percent, and the remaining 30 percent belongs to the state of California and private entities. The state administers just 2.2 percent of forested land, but CAL FIRE, a state agency, provides wildfire protection to private lands as well.

It’s one thing for the state to enter private property to respond to a natural disaster, an intervention that enjoys broad support across the political spectrum. But once you get into preventative behavior like mechanical thinning and prescribed burns—“fuel treatments”—it becomes a different issue. “Are they trained in how to conduct a prescribed burn?” asks Miller, introducing some elements of the calculus for a private citizen. “Are they concerned about it escaping and causing a liability issue? Are they going to go bankrupt because it set their neighbor’s property on fire?” She added that “a tiny, tiny sliver, far less than 1%, of prescribed burns actually get out of control,” but the possibility is still in the equation. There’s a larger kind of eminent domain question at work around whether the government has the authority to insist that private landowners manage their forests in a certain way based on the public interest in having fewer catastrophic fires. California seems to be looking for a way around this, taking a page out of Florida’s book to change the incentive structure for private landowners—who, by the way, include big lumber companies as well as ranchers or private landowner.

Anyway, the article isn’t paywalled and is an interesting take or at least an angle.  There”s also the “people shouldn’t live there” argument.

Beyond people’s opinions about these fuel treatment techniques, though, we have a more fundamental problem. Put simply, there are Americans living in places no human beings should realistically live. It’s true down on the Gulf Coast on the flood plains, it’s true in water-starved areas of the Southwest, it’s true in some basement apartments in Queens, and it’s true of fire-prone spots throughout the wider West. One basic fact of life in a climate-adjusted world is that people are going to be on the move, but it’s no easy thing to convince somebody they have to. And to make them? It’s a major political battle to institute any rules at all, a contest of competing interests that, as it always does in America, comes down to power and who has it.

I don’t really understand this.. it sounds like people move places because they like to live there.  Especially with work from home.  If it gets unpleasant enough, overcrowded or too expensive or whatever, they will move elsewhere.  Why exactly do we need to convince people “they have to”? What’s that about?


8 thoughts on “Western Wildfires Through the Coastal Gaze: Esquire Article on Taking Better Care of Our Forests”

  1. Sharon – You wrote: “Why exactly do we need to convince people ‘they have to’ [move]?” I think the point here is that they either have to fire-harden their “home ignition zone” or else get the hell out of Dodge.

    I moved into the “woods” to escape the noise and over-crowding of the cities. For me, in 1985, it wasn’t traffic or kids screaming as they play or dogs barking. It was the thump-thump of the electric bass, coming through even the ground into the house with the doors closed and the windows shut. Even if I met with my friendly neighbors and got them to dial it down, there were still cars going by shaking the very earth. Not my taste in “music” by a long shot, but I digress. I had been living “down-town” but I didn’t want to move to the suburbs, so I moved to the woods.

    About 15 years ago I realized that I had to start taking wildfire seriously, or else move back into town. So I began first by fire-hardening the house. The cedar shake roof had gone 20 years earlier, replaced by 3-tab comp. Done simply because cedar shakes were leaking and cedar shakes in the woods seemed ridiculous (and way too expensive).

    But 15 years ago I did a major bump-out to create a new bedroom space with a view downslope into the forest. Decided not to use the cedar siding that was on the rest of the house for several reasons but the main ones were cost and fire hardening. Decided to Hardie-board the entire house. Discovered my poco (power company) would pay for replacement of all the windows in the house so did that too. Poco required energy efficient windows but never mentioned fire hardening – so I installed vinyl frame windows. Negatory! Vinyl just melts and welcomes the embers into the house. Oh well.

    Once the remodel was done I started attacking the understory fuel (and fuel ladders) out 100 ft from the house, and falling some trees that were overhanging the house or leaning that way. Removed more downslope from the house than upslope. My thinking was tuned carefully to the land’s aspect and slope, prevailing west winds, and the possibility of a strong east wind event. Each understory bush, e.g. hazel which is more like a small tree gone rogue (we call it “gorilla bush”), and grand fir sapling was removed only if there was something above that it could ignite.

    Is my home ignition zone hardening going to work. I hope so. In any case, I have a better view of the forest than I ever had before and I can walk my woods without having to bull my way through blackberry, poison oak, English holly and ivy, and endless dead branches. Removed some standing dead but the pileateds are still there and now in plain view.

    Back to your question, Sharon. People don’t have to move, but unless they move they have to get off their asses and start fire hardening their home ignition zone. Not just creating defensible space. Without a fire-hardened home, defensible space accomplishes absolutely nothing. Are people in my town (county) doing this? Very, very few. People in my “neighborhood” (part of the woods) are getting old and are not especially wealthy. They bought their homes years ago when prices were affordable. Now many can’t afford to fire-harden or are too old (and/or lack the skills) to do so themselves. Yes, these people need to move. Many live in areas with narrow steep roads that fire rigs can barely negotiate. I doubt our fire services will even try to save their houses. Can they even evacuate? Only if they do so very early. It’s a recipe for disaster (also spelled d-e-a-t-h).

    Did I answer your question? If not, I’m happy to try again.

  2. This article features some bizarre arguments regarding forest and fire management. 45% of California’s lands are held by the government. And some think that of the remaining private ownership, an additional percentage ought to be considered “unlivable.” I have to presume this would mean they’d be managed similarly to the public lands. How does this fix anything? Maybe if the feds start were hitting their treatment targets we could talk about depopulating areas and turning them over to gov control. Until then, why remove housing from a state which needs it to add acres to a busted system?
    The idea of using eminent domain to force fuels treatments on private property when we can’t even treat our public lands is like crying about the stubbed toe on a decapitation victim. Public lands (which own a plurality of forested acreage in CA) are where we need to prove that fire management works, before we force it on others.

  3. ” I think this is probably the first time that private property has been discussed as an obstacle to forest management..”
    You are being sarcastic, right? Every homeowner that doesn’t want prescribed fire too close to their homes is an obstacle to forest management. (See for example the Cainhoy Plantation development in the latest litigation summary.) Or how about industrial forest lands that obligate public lands to be managed differently to maintain adequate water quality in a watershed?

    “If it gets unpleasant enough, overcrowded or too expensive or whatever, they will move elsewhere. Why exactly do we need to convince people “they have to”?”
    I notice you didn’t mention safety. I think it’s kind of like requiring seat belts.

  4. I spoke with a Type I Incident Cmdr recently who said when she mobilized on a big event, she often had to spend the first 2-3 days focused on managing people and traffic… before she could get to the serious business of managing the fire? Does that qualify as “pvt property being an obstacle”?

  5. People have changed attitudes after a wildfire was close, or VERY close to their home where they (you!) need to evacuate in the next 15 minutes.
    Please keep that in your perspective, and see if you still feel the same way. Imminent domain…. Governmental control “for the betterment of the community”. But if it is YOUR house ….. and your neighbor’s house, please think of how you would feel about what “betterment for the community” means to YOU!!

    • Eminent domain involves taking private property for public use rather than regulating private property for public benefit.

      I’m not disagreeing with you, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those whose attitudes are changed tend to move away from the threat – selling their house to someone new that doesn’t understand it and could be against restrictions.


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