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Why is the West burning and what can we do to slow it down? Indigenous tribes might have the answer

As record-breaking blazes rage through homes and forests, the West reckons with climate change, the wildland-urban interface, and fighting fire with fire.

SHARE Why is the West burning and what can we do to slow it down? Indigenous tribes might have the answer

Flames from the Glass Fire consume the Black Rock Inn late Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in St. Helena, Calif.

Noah Berger, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — There are more wildfires burning in the West today. More than 4 million acres have burned in California this year — doubling the previous record — and we’re just entering the official start of the season. How did it get so bad?

Wildfire news has become the drumbeat of a pandemic summer in California, Oregon, and Washington. Smoke has crossed state lines, clogging the Salt Lake Valley and darkening skies on the East Coast and even in Europe. Some fire maps left you wondering which parts of the West weren’t on fire.

Thirty-one people have died, and nearly 8,900 structures have been damaged or destroyed in California alone.

Wildfire season across the West is getting longer, deadlier and more destructive. This year’s fires have already far surpassed the acreage burned in 2018 — the previous record. Or, as one Los Angeles Times headline called it, 2020 is “The worst fire season. Again.” 

The five biggest wildfires in California’s history have all occurred in the past two years

Westerners know intuitively that things are getting worse. In late September, a weekend of 100-degree days left residents of California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys on edge. New fires were sparked on Sunday, Sept. 27, and spread across 48,440 acres within a span of two days. 

But the reasons that massive wildfires have become the new normal are more complicated.

“We can think about the overall picture of wildfire risk in the West having three major drivers. One’s climate change, and we know that the risk of fires, big catastrophic fires, is getting greater and greater as the temperatures warm,” Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, told the Deseret News in May. He added that fire suppression has left more fuel to burn, and that more and more people live in areas that are vulnerable to wildfire, known as the wildland-urban interface.

What role does climate change play?

The warming, more volatile climate has created an environment primed to catch flame. 

One study published in 2018 predicted that in California, climate change would result in more “dry-to-wet events” — periods of drought followed by flooding followed by drought.

In that cycle, vegetation sprouts up, turns brittle, and becomes prime fuel. That was the case this year, and experts were sounding the alarm for months.

Climate change not only appears to be increasing dry-to-wet events, it also has resulted in the warmer, drier months stretching farther and farther into the fall. 

A study from Environmental Research Letters noted: “These autumn wildfires have coincided with extreme fire weather conditions during periods of strong offshore winds coincident with unusually dry vegetation enabled by anomalously warm conditions and late onset of autumn precipitation.”

The number of days in autumn with “extreme fire weather” (for example, hotter than usual temperatures) have doubled in California from the 1980s. Low humidity, dry brush and hot weather mean that a downed power line or freak lightning storm can spark an out-of-control wildfire that quickly burns thousands of acres. That’s what happened two weeks ago in the Napa Valley.

What’s the role of forest management?

Wildfires have been part of the West Coast’s ecosystem for thousands of years — however the severity with which they burn is new.

One reason is fire suppression. For decades, people stopped fires small and large from burning. That resulted in overgrown forests — and fuel for the large-scale fires that cause more extensive damage. 

In 2016, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, published a study looking at a 40-year experiment: 40,000 acres in Yosemite National Park were allowed to burn when fires occurred naturally. They found that minimal suppression “created a landscape more resistant to catastrophic fire, with more diverse vegetation and forest structure and increased water storage, mostly in the form of meadows in areas cleared by fires.”

As researchers realized that fire suppression actually results in greater damage, states like California began embracing controlled burns — a practice of setting smaller fires to clear brush and dry grass. 

Controlled burns were once used by Indigenous communities to maintain healthy forests across the continent. The Karuk Tribe, situated in Northern California and southern Oregon, used controlled burns until the practice was outlawed by the U.S. government in 1850.

One key to dealing with the West’s new indefinite wildfire season may be learning to live with it and allowing some fires to burn.

Why do people build in fire-prone zones?

When homes are built near areas that are at risk of wildfires, they too can burn. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of homes built in areas where residential development meets wildland vegetation grew by 41% across the country. But in Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Arizona, the number of homes built in the wildland-urban interface grew by about 70% over the same period of time.

Not only do these homes pose a risk to their residents, they also increase the risk of starting wildfires in the first place. 

“We now have lots more people literally living in the line of fire,” Jennifer K. Balch, a fire ecologist told Scientific American in 2018. “In a lot of places in the U.S., it’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when will that home be exposed to wildfire.”

Two years later, that seems to be playing out, as new communities are exposed to flames, and places like Napa and Sonoma counties in California endure another record-breaking fire season. In Utah, fires have been started by nearby residents target shooting. Sparks from a bullet ignite dry brush.

Living with destruction might be the only option. Fighting fire with fire could help. Efforts to mitigate the Earth’s rising temperatures will be necessary. People can build with materials that are fire resistant and make sure to create defensible space around their homes.

But today, the fire keeps spreading, rolling over neighborhoods and wild lands.

As the captain of Cal Fire said in 2017, “We don’t even call it fire season anymore. Take the ‘season’ out — it’s year-round.”