SANTA CLARA, Calif. —
California is burning, but it is hardly alone. Up and down the western half of the country, 92 wildfires are currently raging in states as diverse as Alaska, Idaho and Arizona.
At the heart of the crisis, California is in the middle of another record-breaking fire season, with 820,000 acres across the state already ravaged — twice as many as by this point last year. Three of California’s biggest recorded fires are burning right now.
We may be able to learn from California — a state that has larger populations, more extreme droughts, a history of intense forest management and greater susceptibility to warming than most.
Along with an intense fire season, 2018 is shaping up to be the fourth-warmest year on record, exceeded only by the three previous years.
In California, these warm years have been overlapping with the most intense drought in recorded history. Throughout the West, drought and heat have weakened trees and made them susceptible to disease and pests such as the pine beetle that devastates forests as far north as Canada.
Dead and weakened trees and excessive wood fuel from fire suppression have turned California into one giant tinderbox.
So can we blame those raging fires on human-induced climate change? Based on physical processes, elevated greenhouse gas concentrations make warmer temperatures, shifts in precipitation and climatic extremes much more likely. Although there is still much to learn about the way fires burn, higher temperatures and intense droughts facilitate extreme fire seasons.
The costs of suppressing fires have reached an all-time high, a mind-boggling $2.9 billion in 2017 for California alone, and it is time to take a no-nonsense look at what we can do better.
Yes, we can talk about extreme fires without mentioning what often cannot be named — climate change, but they are consistent with what scientists expect from global warming.
In the West, natural forest systems periodically burn with low-intensity fires that clear brush, help germination and result in more fire-, pest- and disease-resistant open forests.
However, for over a century forest management has intercepted these processes and mainly centered on fire suppression.
The goals were laudable: Agencies kept the general public safe and protected lands and natural resources such as timber and oil.
Yet we may have done more harm than good. Although fire suppression may satisfy short-term goals, in the long run, it encourages the growth of denser forests with less fire-resistant species and more fuel, greatly exacerbating the size and intensity of wildfires.
While we cannot pin a particular fire on climate change, their bundled appearance is consistent with the processes scientists understand and can describe, measure and calculate.
And while part of our current fire crisis most certainly has its roots in forest management practices and human settlement patterns, we now have an opportunity to plan for a fire future without putting on blinkers when it comes to climate.
Healthy forests are vibrant ecosystems that provide us with water, timber, biodiversity, recreational opportunities and living spaces. They are part of why so many people find California and the West attractive places.
On our current trajectory, we continue to suppress low-intensity fires in increasingly warmer environments, and are setting ourselves up for more frequent and intense mega-fires.
Alternatively, we can rethink our path forward to help our forests establish a new equilibrium between tree growth, fuel generation, low-intensity fire and warmer temperatures.
Most likely that would mean some controlled burns and greater control of where and how people live in regions of high fire risk. It would also mean that we need to fund research and projects in areas as diverse as fire behavior, disaster-preparedness, economic recovery and forest restoration.
We also need to accept a transition period to this new strategy and its outcomes. In the longer term, such an approach will save lives and help us develop adaptation strategies to protect our economic and natural assets in a changing world.
Iris Stewart Frey is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Stanford University.