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California may need more fire to fix its wildfire problem

By Sophie Quinton, on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON - California is supposed to burn.

Before settlers populated the region in the 1800s, about 5 to 12% of the land that now makes up the Golden State caught fire each year - more than has burned so far in 2020, the most destructive year in modern history. Some of the historic fires were caused by lightning and others were set by Native Americans as a land-management tool, but they mostly burned with low intensity and touched much of the state with great regularity.

But after more than a century of aggressive fire suppression, California's vegetation has grown much denser than the fire-adapted ecosystem had evolved to handle. Competition for water left forests vulnerable to drought and bark beetles, killing more than 150 million trees in the state.

Even as leaders rethink the role of fire, development throughout the state has made it much more difficult to let things burn.

"With the number of houses and the number of people we've got, there are some places where you're just not going to get fire on those landscapes," said Malcolm North, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist. "We're in a state with 40 million people. We'll never have fire on a scale we used to have historically."

But as climate change brings hotter, drier conditions, the tinderbox has ignited. Unlike the historic fires that thinned out vegetation and left thriving meadows in their wake, the megafires now engulfing the state ravage the landscape and send plumes of smoke across the continent.


"The war against fire has got to end," said Craig Thomas, founder of the Fire Restoration Group, which advocates for more controlled burns to restore healthy forests and prevent large, destructive fires. "I'm running out of words to talk about what we need to do. We've been telling the story for quite a while."

The long-standing default position of suppressing every fire has created problems throughout the West, and tribes in many states are working to restore traditional burning practices. But nowhere is the issue more evident than California, which Thomas described as "one of the most naturally flammable landscapes on Earth."

Bitter fights over how to manage forests have been ongoing for decades on Capitol Hill and in the states, especially since the debate over how much logging should be allowed often goes hand in hand with the discussion over prescribed fires.

Amid the largest fire season in California's history, many leaders at all levels agree that prescribed fire needs to play a greater role in the state's wildfire strategy. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to treat 1 million acres a year across both jurisdictions (57% of California's forest land is under federal control), including controlled burns and timber harvests.


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