Moving Beyond America’s War on Wildfire: 4 Ways to Avoid Future Megafires

Lambert here: Oddly, bringing real estate development to a halt in wildfire-prone areas, or even rolling it back, is not mentioned.

By Susan Kocher, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Ryan E. Tompkins, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Reposted from Alternet.

Californians have been concerned about wildfires for a long time, but the past two years have left many of them fearful and questioning whether any solutions to the fire crisis truly exist.

The Dixie Fire in the Sierra Nevada burned nearly 1 million acres in 2021, including almost the entire community of Greenville. Then strong winds near Lake Tahoe sent the Caldor Fire racing through the community of Grizzly Flats and to the edges of urban neighborhoods, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people – including one of us. Those were only the biggest of the 2021 fires, and the risk isn’t over. A wind-blown fire that started Oct. 11 was spreading quickly near Santa Barbara on the Southern California coast.

As foresters who have been working on wildfire and forest restoration issues in the Sierra Nevada for over a quarter of a century, we have found it painful to watch communities destroyed and forests continuing to burn to a crisp.

The main lesson we gather from how these fires have burned is that forest fuels reduction projects are our best tools for mitigating wildfire impacts under a changing climate, and not nearly enough of them are being done.

Two historic policies, in our view, led the western U.S. to the point where its forests have become so overgrown they’re fueling megafires that burn down whole communities.

Fire Suppression

The first policy problem is fire suppression and exclusion.

Fire is an essential ecological process, and many of the ecosystems in the West are adapted to frequent fire, meaning plant and wildlife species have evolved to survive or even thrive after wildfires. But most people arriving in California during colonization, both before and after the Gold Rush of 1849, fundamentally misunderstood the nature of frequent fire forests.

As state and federal agencies evolved policies on forest management, they considered all fire to be an existential problem and declared war. The U.S. Forest Service kicked off a century of fire suppression in the West after the devastating fires of 1910, known as the “Big Blowup” or “Big Burn,” by implementing the 10 a.m. policy. It aimed for full suppression of all fires by 10 a.m. the day after they broke out.

Native people who practiced prescribed fire to manage forests were removed from their homelands, and burning was criminalized. California made prescribed fire illegal in 1924, and it remained illegal for decades until a better appreciation of its importance emerged in the 1970s.

Past harvesting practices lead to regulations

The second policy issue is the regulatory approach that grew out of past logging practices.

Foresters and early California communities were interested in forests for lumber and fuel wood. They sent the largest – and most fire-tolerant – trees to mills to be turned into lumber, which was used to build California’s cities and towns.

Poorly executed logging in some areas led to concerns from residents that forest cover and habitat was shrinking. As a result, state and federal regulations were developed in the 1970s that require managers proposing forest projects to consider a “no action alternative.” In other words, maintaining dense forest habitat in the long term was considered a viable management choice.

On private land, few owners today thin the forest to levels that would mimic the more fire-resilient forests found in the Sierra at colonization. The California Forest Practices Act until recently required replanting after timber harvest to levels much more dense than were found at colonization. In other words, our current regulatory framework promotes maintaining high levels of forest density, when much more drastic removal of vegetation is needed.

Taken together, these policies have promoted 21st-century forests that are younger, denser and more homogenous – making them vulnerable to increasingly severe disturbances such as drought, insect outbreaks and fire. This new reality is exacerbated by a changing climate, which turns the regulatory assumption that active and widespread forest management is riskier than no management on its head.

Agency Priorities Change as the Crisis Grows

Just as forests have changed, so too have the agencies that manage and regulate them. The U.S. Forest Service has seen its budgets for fighting fires balloon while its capacity to proactively manage forests has been shrinking. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CAL FIRE, has also seen large increases in firefighting budgets, though the state legislature has recently moved to increase fire prevention funds, too.

Living in communities threatened by wildfires this summer, we are very grateful to firefighters who have saved our homes. Yet we also are concerned that more large, high-severity wildfires burning across the landscape mean less funding and staff will be available for proactive fuels reduction projects like forest thinning and prescribed fires.

How Do We Get Out of this Mess?

The Dixie and Caldor fires that destroyed Greenville and Grizzly Flats provided evidence that forest fuels reduction projects can work.

Both fires burned less severely in areas with proactive forest restoration and fuels management projects, including near South Lake Tahoe and near Quincy.

Fuels reduction projects include thinning out trees, burning off woody debris and reducing “ladder fuels” like small trees and brush that can allow fire to reach the tree canopy. They create more open forests that are less likely to fuel severe megafires. They also create strategic areas where firefighters can more easily fight future blazes. And, because fires burn less intensely in thinned forests, they leave more intact forest after a fire for regenerating new trees and sequestering carbon. Prescribed fires and managed ignitions paid huge dividends for containing the Dixie and Caldor fires.

To manage fires in an era of climate change, where drier, hotter weather creates ideal conditions for burning, experts estimate that the area treated for fuels reduction needs to increase by at least an order of magnitude. We believe government needs to accomplish these four things to succeed:

1) Drastically increase funding and staff for agencies’ fuels reduction projects, as well as outreach, cost-sharing and technical assistance for private forestland owners. Although the Biden administration’s proposal for a Civilian Climate Corps proposes funding to bring in more young and unskilled workers, funding more federal and state agency positions would recruit more natural resource professionals, provide career-track opportunities and better add forest restoration capacity for the long term.

2) Reduce regulations on forest and fuels management efforts for both public and private land. While California and the federal government have made recent strides to streamline regulations, land management agencies need to acknowledge the biggest risk in frequent fire forests is doing nothing, and time is running out. Agencies need to drastically cut the time needed to plan and implement fuels reduction projects.

3) Invest in communities’ capacity to carry out local forest restoration work by providing long-term support to local organizations that provide outreach, technical assistance and project coordination services. Funding restoration through competitive grants makes development of long-term community capacity challenging at best.

4) Provide funds and financial incentives for at risk communities to retrofit homes to withstand wildfires and reduce fuels around homes, communities and infrastructure.

Under a changing climate, we will have to learn to coexist with wildfires in the U.S. West, but this will require concerted action and a cultural shift in how we view and manage our forests and communities to be resilient.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Wukchumni

    We’re in the mopping up stages of the KNP Fire, and wildfires and SARs (search and rescue) are similar in a way.

    Once somebody goes missing in Sequoia NP they tend to pull out all the stops in finding that person, its as if the cost doesn’t matter 1 iota. There was a backpacker who disappeared a few months ago and was the subject of an intense search involving 50 people or so, including many NPS employees who had to stop doing whatever their usual job title is, and find that guy.

    I’m guessing that upwards of $250k were spent looking for him to no avail (his body was found eventually about a month after his disappearance by private searchers) and where does that money come from one wonders?

    This is happening @ a time when the infrastructure in the NP is ancient and in need of replacement, a quarter million could have replaced the circa 1948 bathroom I use on a regular basis, but there isn’t the will nor the money to get r’ done.

    I have no way of knowing what the KNP Fire cost to fight during it’s approx 2 month engagement (it’s 45% contained now) but it involved over 2,000 people, many dozens of bulldozers cutting line and a few dozen firefighting helicopters, along with oh so many water tender trucks and logistical support up the wazoo. A friend is ferrying food to the firefighters in his truck making $500 a day, could a Grubhub driver ever dream of making that kind of jack?

    I’ll throw out a guess of what it cost to fight the fire, how about $13 million?

    We react to wildfires with an amazing urgency and mistakes are made in the heat of battle (an ill-advised backburn in the largest Sequoia grove of all-Redwood Mountain, might be responsible for a huge loss of Sequoias in the grove, for instance) that wouldn’t happen if we were proactive and took our time to thin out the forest of fuels and too many trees beforehand.

    $13 million buys you a shit ton of preventative measures and would allow for employment of a good many people clearing out the forest for the trees of burnables over a period of years, not 2 months.

    1. juno mas

      Observations of a forest/mountain veteran!

      Fire season in the West is a modern day WPA program. Most firefighters understand the Kabuki theater. As the only way to stop a fire raging through flammable fuels is — RAIN. But it is imperative to appear to be doing something.

    2. Brian Westva

      I thought the website would have the cost to suppress the fire but it doesn’t. The NIFC SIT report has the cost for the KNP complex at $70 million.

      It certainly is expensive to pay for our past mistakes. The cost of climate change change will dwarf the western wildfire problem.

  2. Koldmilk

    I can imagine that worst-case for Bayer, et al. is that imports of non-GMO corn from Mexico into USA increase and US farmers start switching away from GMO to compete. Let’s hope more developing countries follow Mexico’s example or all the pesticide-laden GMO corn gets dumped on Africa as “aid”.

  3. lordkoos

    About 30 miles from where I live near the WA town of Cle Elum, hundreds of houses continue to be built that are in or adjacent to forests. The demand is there and the trend of people moving east from Seattle doesn’t seem like it will stop anytime soon. It’s a recipe for disaster IMO but apparently the greed of the developers and real estate agents cannot be restrained. For many of these properties it’s just a matter of time before fire threatens them — it’s not if it will happen, but when. People seem to assume that their places will be protected by fire crews if the worst occurs, but what happens when we have multiple large fires in the state and our fire-fighting resources are stretched too thin? I doubt there will any talk of limiting development until it is too late.

    1. juno mas

      Land development is mostly controlled at the local level. Where monied developers can easily sway the governing political body.

      The Lake Tahoe basin is an exception. There, land use is governed by the federally mandated bi-state Tahoe Regional Plannning Agency (TRPA) in an effort to maintain the lakes water clarity. This summers wildfire to the south never got far into the Tahoe Basin because the TRPA has land use ordinance that controls building location (and footprint) AND forest thinning and fuel minimization.

  4. MT_Wild

    Fire, disease, invasive species, infrastructure, war, etc. We know prevention and maintenance is cheaper than having to put it out while its burning and clean up the wreckage.

    But we never learn. And until its actually burning and/or crashing down around us, no one wants to spend the money or do the work. This applies to just about every aspect of the human experience from society as a whole to personal health.

    I looked around for the KNP cost to date and could not find it. The cost to date gets calculated every day for each fire, I thought that was public and usually included on the daily updates. Calfire may handle that differently than the FS. My guess is 25-40 million. For comparision, last years Slater/Devil fire on the CA/OR border was 150k acres and hit 27 million in 20 days with just under 1200 personnel.

  5. Carolinian

    Here’s the rebuttal, which I linked a couple of weeks ago

    In addition, the very fire people are anxious to stop or control are those burning under extreme fire conditions. These conditions include high temperatures, low humidity, drought and most importantly high winds. High winds, often blow embers over and through “fuel reductions” like prescribed burns. In other words, even if such prescriptions worked under low to moderate fire weather conditions, fuel reductions including thinning and prescribed burning typically fail to alter fire spread due to wind transport of embers.

    Just burning enough of the landscape to have any influence on wildfires is also problematic. The window when burning is safe is frequently very narrow. Concerns about smoke dispersal add to the limitations.

    Furthermore, there is always a chance that a prescribed burn will get away and burn far more of the landscape, including homes, prescribed burning increases the chances of fire losses. Due to the low possibility that any blaze will encounter a prescribed burn during the period when it could change fire behavior whether you would reduce the acreage charred is questionable. A prescribed burn could get away from fire fighters and burn significant acreage as occurred with the Cerro Grande prescribed burn that destroyed homes in Los Alamos.

    Which is to say such measures may save towns like South Lake Tahoe (although a change in the winds seem to have had more to do with that) but the Sierras are vast and neither the indigenous nor the current are going to be prescribed burning the whole thing.

    Wuerthner concludes

    All this said I don’t oppose the strategic use of prescribed burning so long as people recognize the limitations. Reducing fuels around communities and homes can be effective if and when a blaze threatens structures. However, the idea that somehow prescribed burning is an effective panacea that can reduce or preclude climate-driven blazes is questionable.

    1. juno mas


      The conditions that allow for these mega-fires is complex. Status of the forest vegetation (drought, disease) affects combustibility of even the best managed forests. Forest wildfires in well managed forests are likely to continue with Climate Change. While we need to seek unique management programs for unique forest conditions in the short -term, in the long-term we need to promote radical conservation of global warming activities.

  6. Susan the other

    Germany is salvaging their forests by planting trees better adjusted to the climate and removing trees killed or weakened by bark beetles. They are replacing pine forests (I think) with deciduous varieties.

  7. Boris

    There is a lot of neo-liberal BS here. Dixie Fire was started by PG&E. They should not even be in business after this summers fires and the fires they have started over the last several years. The Tamarack fire and the Caldor fire were mismanaged from the get go, and got out of control due to delayed responses. Native Americans did use fire to protect heating areas, living areas, and to enhance and encourage growth of certain species of plants for harvesting that were important to their cultural practices. They weren’t using fire management in some grand forest management scheme. Remember, what you burn intentionally comes back and what comes back is not always what you want to grow back. You can’y control millions of acres of forest with prescribed buns; many of which get out of control. We are having our current fire disasters due to climate warming, the subsequent drought, an increase in population in the rural/urban interface. I am just touching the surface here, but the burning of fossil fuels has to stop. Read:

    1. Boris

      There is a lot of neo-liberal BS here. Dixie Fire was started by PG&E. They should not even be in business after this summers fires and the fires they have started over the last several years. The Tamarack fire and the Caldor fire were mismanaged from the get go, and got out of control due to delayed responses. Native Americans did use fire to protect hunting areas, living areas, and to enhance and encourage growth of certain species of plants for harvesting that were important to their cultural practices. They weren’t using fire management in some grand forest management scheme. Remember, what you burn intentionally comes back and what comes back is not always what you want to grow back. You can’t control millions of acres of forest with prescribed buns; many of which get out of control. We are having our current fire disasters due to climate warming, the subsequent drought, an increase in population in the rural/urban interface. I am just touching the surface here, but the burning of fossil fuels has to stop. Read:
      Spell-corrected previous post.

  8. JBird4049

    At least in California, part of the reason for more people living in the bush is that until recently housing was cheaper there. Not affordable, just less expensive, such as at Paradise. Of course, housing costs have level out at a very high, unaffordable level throughout the state, but that is another problem. The result is a scattering of small, poor communities throughout the state in addition to the developers’ wet dreams and the older commuter and/or vacation communities.

    To give an example of older, wealthier communities trapping themselves into death traps there is the town of Mill Valley in Marin county. Plenty of decades or century old neighborhoods up in the hills or the base of Mount Tam. It is lovely under the Redwoods, but I use to deliver pizzas in the area and the extent of narrow two lane or one roads lined with homes is amazing. If there is water hook up and a spot, a house is built. The entire county has the same problem as the rest of the state, only the well off neighborhoods have refused the fire department’s efforts to have controlled burns longer than I have been alive.

    People (throughout the county and the state as well) refuse to allow the necessary, often expensive, work needed to stop people from dying, but those property values must not be interfered with. It is as if the 1929 Fire never happened

    So it is a mix of the poor, the middle class, the well off and the developers all making it worse. Honestly, I have sympathy for the poor and working classes as well as newcomers, but for the wealthier long term home owners, not much, and for the blasted developers, none at all.

  9. Tom Stone

    Marin County is a disaster waiting to happen, it was the home of sudden oak death syndrome and there is no shortage of dead oak trees or live eucalyptus.
    When, not if a major fire hits Marin it will cause a significant loss of life.
    Narrow roads, low water pressure and lots of wood shingled homes amongst the trees and brush.

  10. Darius

    Default fire suppression has led to the virtual cessation of natural reproduction of the giant sequoias. They depend on fire to reproduce. Yet, wildfires were so intense last year and this, they have led to mass mortality of ancient sequoias. I don’t know about other forests, but prescribed burning is critical to the survival of sequoias, especially now, with climate-change-driven droughts.

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