In California, Restoring Our Relationship With Fire Is Possible

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A fire truck drives through smoky haze from the Caldor Fire on Highway 50 near Pollock Pines and Strawberry Campground on Tues., Aug. 31, 2021.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Devastating. Catastrophic. Deadly.

These words are often used to describe wildfires in our state. As we’ve seen in the last five years,  wildfires and the toxic smoke that comes with them have impacted all Californians.

Whether it's grabbing an N95 mask on smoky days, preparing an emergency go bag, or evacuating your home as a fire encroaches upon your town,  communities across the state are now dealing with more aggressive fire seasons. But if fire — and all that comes in its wake — is an inevitable aspect of life here, how do we live with it? And could we change our relationship to fire?

KQED Science’s Danielle Venton has reported on fire and our changing climate for six years. She's witnessed firsthand how we've come to think and talk about the role major fire phenomena have on our lives. Shifting our conversations, and even the metrics for measuring a fire's impact, could help us craft multipronged solutions. She spoke with Devin Katayama of The Bay to discuss why the dominant fire narrative must change.

Read the episode transcript.

Why are California's wildfires so destructive now?

Prepare for a Possible Evacuation

In 2021, fires already have burned through more acres than during last year’s record-breaking season compared to this time last year.

“For the first maybe two or three years, it kind of felt like a fluke,” Venton said. “[Now] it feels inevitable.”

A century of fire suppression, the forced removal of California’s Indigenous people from their land, and extractive industries combined with climate change-fueled megadroughts have produced a uniquely combustible scenario that makes fires in the West more unpredictable than in previous decades.

“We need to do some big rethinking about the state's relationship with fires,” Venton said. “We might talk about being at war with fire, or we saw big dramatic headlines like ‘The West Is Burning,’ and that really indicates to me that we haven't gotten over the idea that all fire is bad and that Western forests are not supposed to burn.”

As fires have grown more destructive, engulfing entire towns and displacing thousands of Californians, scientists and ecologists are placing renewed attention on prescribed burns, a centuries-old practice that Indigenous tribes like the Klamath’s Karuk used for stewarding their land. The practice involves setting controlled fires, or "good fire," to burn through dry debris in the understory of forests, which, if left dry and unmanaged, becomes the perfect fuel for a blaze.

@kqedofficialWe break down how CA’s fire season got so bad. ##california ##californiafire ##wildfire2021 ##dixiefire ##climatechange ##droughtlife ##localnews ##firetok♬ original sound - kqed

How do you measure the impact of fire?

Not all fires are bad. But fire coverage and reporting often frame an incident as a disaster that must be contained, redirected or stopped.  Californians are often used to understanding the magnitude of a developing disaster by dividing the incident into digestible pieces, like how many acres it’s burned, or how contained it is.

But Venton says that fire’s impact can’t just be measured by acres and area contained. “If the fire is burning in a healthy way, in a place where it's doing ecological good, a fire could be 15% contained. And that doesn't tell you that it's catastrophic necessarily,” she said.

Instead, she argues that we should reassess and reprioritize metrics for measuring a fire’s impact. “How many people are being evacuated? Is it threatening towns?” she said.

“Is it burning in a way that is out of control and ... how many firefighters are involved in the firefight? When did they last have a break?”

Ash remains of a structure and a stone fireplace surrounded by dozens of charred trees.
A burned structure off Highway 50 near Phillips, California, on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, after the Caldor Fire spread through the area that Monday evening. Until recently, federal firefighters — also known as "forestry technicians" — were paid about $13 an hour. A new plan under President Biden would increase that amount to $15 an hour. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Who really fights fires?

Calling people heroes is not productive, Venton said. Instead, she urges us to think about who is doing this work and how they're compensated.

Until recently, federal firefighters — also known as "forestry technicians" — were paid about $13 an hour.  A new plan under President Biden would increase that amount to $15 an hour, but "most of the livable wage comes from overtime, meaning that people rely on it, meaning that they feel like it's never OK to say no to an assignment," she said.

But that doesn't include the work of incarcerated firefighters who fight California's blazes. Incarcerated firefighters are paid $2 to $5 per day, and they get an extra dollar per hour when they’re actively working at a fire.

The work itself is brutal, and many firefighters are working long hours in dangerous situations while disconnected from their families.

"I would much rather they be fairly paid and fairly treated professionals," Venton said.

A second change she recommends is to treat the work of fire prevention with the same attention and value as fighting existing blazes.

"The hero narrative feeds into this thing I see in our culture that I don't like," she explained. "We value coming to the rescue more than preventing problems in the first place."

How can you create community-based solutions?

"Fires are a human-caused problem, and that means that humans can be part of the solution," Venton said.

Through her reporting, Venton has met neighbors who are taking fire prevention into their own hands.

In the Fresno County town of Shaver Lake, bordered in part by land owned by Southern California Edison, communities spent decades putting in fire breaks and setting prescribed burns.

While this approach might seem long and fairly unglamorous, their mitigation efforts helped interrupt the spread of the 2020 Creek Fire, which ultimately saved their town from devastation.

In the end, regarded as heroes were the firefighters, rather than the foresters and land managers who spent a decade building fuel breaks and lighting “good fires” as part of their mitigation strategy.

"People who extinguish flames are called heroes. People who trim brush and light prescribed fires aren't thought of that way," Venton said earlier this year.

A gif shows how fuel breaks interrupted fire paths in the 2020 Creek Fire. The area with a previous prescribed burn is also indicated near the origin of the Creek Fire. Text reads: Forest treatments and fuel breaks helped interrupt the spread of the Creek Fire in the Shaver Lake area, Sept. 2020.

But Venton also points out that wildfires are a multifaceted and constantly evolving problem. One solution does not fit all. The solutions themselves are constantly evolving as well.

In her reporting, she says attention often falls on where mitigation attempts to prevent catastrophic fires have failed. "Of course, some fires are not going to respond to a firebreak," she explained. "That doesn't mean it's not worth it."

She points to an analogy of seatbelts.

In the 1950s, cars were incredibly dangerous and accidents could result in serious injury or death. But after iterations of new safety strategies, cars are now manufactured to include seatbelts, "crumple zones," and airbags. That shift came about after years of experimenting and testing multiple solutions. The same goes for future wildfire prevention, which could involve variations of mitigation strategies.

If not all fires are bad, what about wildfire smoke?

“Wildfire smoke is likely the No. 1 way Californians will feel the effects of fires and really the effects of climate change,” Venton said. “Smoke is really its own natural disaster.”

The 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County nearly obliterated the town of Paradise, killing 106 people and displacing thousands. On top of that devastation, researchers estimated that the smoke of that fire killed an additional 3,600 people.

"That’s 30 times more than a heart attack or respiratory illness," Venton added.

But Venton says a major solution to mitigating hazardous levels of wildfire smoke would involve dramatically scaling up the amount of controlled and prescribed fire.

"A little bit of smoke we should not worry about," she explained. "It's the really heavy, toxic smoke when homes and cars [burn] — and that's the really bad smoke."

Venton urges us to reconsider the notion that blue skies mean ecological balance.

Bill Tripp, a member of the Karuk Tribe and an advocate for a return to prescribed burns, told Venton that California's skies have always been hazy.

"The historical records show that the forest looked like a well-pruned orchard with a constant haze of smoke in the air," he said. "That haze, constant haze is part of that natural background. And that's what people don't understand."

But identifying ways to protect people from the hazardous smoke emitted from megafires is a necessary part of our fire conversation now. Researchers and journalists are just now measuring the full impacts smoke has on communities. For her part, Venton urges that questions like how to access affordable air purifiers and reliable information on air quality be part of these conversations.

How can we live with fire?

Preparing An Emergency Bag

"I want us to have a better relationship with fire in this state so that this state continues to be habitable and a wonderful place to live," Venton said.

"Our ecosystems would be healthier, our lungs would be healthier. Our communities would not have to live in so much fear."

While she admits California has a long way to go, she believes that a future with a restored relationship with fire is possible. It requires investment and a conversation toward solutions.

"If I can do anything to try to help the conversation towards those
solutions, that's what I want to do," she said.

This episode was edited and mixed by Christopher Beale and Alan Montecillo and hosted by Devin Katayama

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