SAN DIEGO – California’s wildfire season is getting longer and more intense, and scientific and forestry experts foresee hotter and drier conditions that would make the situation significantly worse.
State and local officials have in the last decade updated efforts to keep people and property safe from out-of-control conflagrations. This includes such things as updated building codes, requirements on defensible space around homes and various forest management techniques.
However, many fear that those tactics won’t be enough to keep pace with the worst consequences of powerful blazes, which have ripped through the state’s forests with growing frequency and size over the past few decades.
A continued trend of backcountry development and aggressive fire suppression to keep those properties safe has led to densely packed forests in close proximity to many communities.
At the same time, California’s recent five-year drought — by many measures the worst in thousands of years, according to some researchers — has left more than 100 million trees dead from San Diego up through the Sierra.
It’s unclear what this unprecedented event means for this fire season and those to follow. But many fear the worst and a conversation about how to meet this and other wildfire-related challenges has started to heat up.
“We will need some very new approaches to deal with both the increasing hazard of fire and our increasing exposure to it,” said Max Moritz, a specialist in fire ecology and management and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. “The situation we have created is dangerous, and without a major shift in perspective it will only get worse.”
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the agency responsible for 31 million acres throughout the state, doesn’t deny that the situation seems to be increasingly precarious. But Cal Fire officials said they have a suite of practices and protocols that over time have increased backcountry safety in the face of often uncontrollable blazes.
“It’s a team effort between the fire service and the citizens of California,” said Cal Fire Deputy Chief and spokesman Scott McLean. “Through our prescribed burns, we’re doing a lot of fuel reduction work.”
The largest wildfire in the state’s history, the Cedar fire, took place in 2003 in San Diego, burning more than 270,000 acres and torching more than 2,230 homes and 148 vehicles. It also killed more than a dozen civilians and injured more than 100 firefighters, including one fatally.
Beyond being deadly, such fires are also very costly. The price tag on suppressing the Cedar fire, which burned from Oct. 25 to Nov. 5, was roughly $27 million. And San Diego County sustained more than roughly $850 million worth of property damage from the wildfire, part of roughly $2.6 billion in destruction attributed to outbreaks throughout Southern California that season.
In 2015, the Butte and Valley fires in Northern California caused a staggering $1.95 billion worth of damage, burning in a two-week period everything from businesses to homes to schools to churches. Of that, it’s estimated that roughly $800 million of losses weren’t insured.
Many researchers believe that years of aggressive firefighting has disrupted a natural cycle where moderately sized fires prune back large sections of woodland.
In response, prescribed burns have increasingly been seen as a necessity, despite causing air pollution and running the risk of getting out of control. Fire officials also use heavy equipment to mechanically thin forests, but it’s too expensive to address the state’s overall needs and the practice can damage ecosystems.
However, it’s widely accepted that such forest management practices will only go so far.
Some scientists believe Californians will need to learn to coexist with an increasingly flammable landscape, especially if climate change continues unabated.
Communities could likely be faced in the near future with tough decisions, such as whether to flee conflagrations and risk clogging roads that could be engulfed in flames, or adopt “shelter-in-place” policies that strictly regulate homes and properties to make them as fire resistant as possible.
For example, Rancho Santa Fe has embraced the latter protocol, which asks residents to wait out fires at home in all but the most extreme cases. As part of this approach, building codes in the affluent community require homes to be as fire-resistant as possible.
Other towns in fire-prone areas have significantly beefed up volunteer fire departments and highly regimented evacuation plans, such as in Painted Cave in the hills north of Santa Barbara.
“Agencies are doing what they can to manage our public lands in California, but to get ahead of the problem, we will have to start living with fire like we deal with and accommodate other inevitable natural hazards, such as floods and earthquakes,” said Mortiz of UC Berkeley. “This requires a major shift in thinking and land-use planning.”