Wildfires Generate Questions. We've Got Answers to Some of Yours

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A home burns along Sunflower Road during the Carr Fire on July 27, 2018 in Redding, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Kincade Fire is disrupting thousands of lives in northeastern Sonoma County. Wildfires always raise questions about the best ways to deal with their effects. That's why we're offering this still-relevant information that came out of the disastrous 2017 fire season. It was first published in July 2018.

Living in California has always meant living with wildfire, but in recent years it has meant living with some of the worst fires in recorded history. Of the top 10 most destructive wildfires in the state, seven occurred within the last four years. In the last two years alone, the fires of Paradise and Wine Country claimed, in combination, more than 100 lives and scorched nearly 200,000 acres of land.

At KQED, we’ve been talking to experts about the ways in which we can protect ourselves in an increasingly uncertain future. We know our Reddit users share these concerns, and decided to have an AMA to address your thoughtful questions. Below are some highlights from the AMA, which have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

KQED Science and News Staff:

  • Kat Snow, KQED Science Senior Editor (Twitter: @CosmologicalKat)
  • Lauren Sommer, KQED Science reporter covering climate change, water, and energy (Twitter: @lesommer)
  • Molly Peterson, KQED Science reporter covering climate change, toxics, and wildfires (Twitter: @mollydacious)
  • Jeremy Siegel, KQED News reporter and weekend afternoon news anchor/editor covering the Camp Fire (Twitter: @jersiegel)
  • Danielle Venton, KQED Science editor and reporter covering wildfires, astronomy, and physics (Twitter: @DanielleVenton)

What should every Californian know as we head into fire season this year?


Kat Snow: There's a lot people can do to reduce the risk their home will burn, but few people seem to know how much these actions can make a difference. People can manage the vegetation around their house, and do small fire-proofing things like installing screens over vents to keep out flying sparks. It's not that hard to take these actions, but it does mean thinking of fire and making it a priority every year. See Lauren's reporting about vegetation and building for fire.

Lauren Sommer: Even if we build the most fire-resistant communities we can, there will still be more fires. So Californians should know how to evacuate — what to take and where to go.  Jeremy did some reporting on why evacuations are a challenge.

Molly Peterson: Disaster and climate change are pointing up tensions, both actively debated and unaddressed, in a range of policies that are everyday, year-round issues for Californians — health, transportation and housing chief among them. Nobody can ignore these problems.

Danielle Venton: We can do many things to lessen our wildfire risk, but taking action requires us to reconsider how we do things (and maybe give up some personal freedom).

What has surprised you the most in your researching and reporting on the wildfire issues?

Jeremy Siegel: I did a story about what's next for wildfire evacuation planning in the aftermath of the Camp Fire, and what I found surprising is that everyone I spoke to — from emergency officials to fire experts — didn't have many clear answers to questions I asked, and they had a lot of questions themselves. This isn't to say anyone was dodging difficult questions, it's to say that the Camp Fire raised a lot of good questions for emergency managers. After a disaster, it's common practice for communities to go back and examine their own emergency procedures and see what can be learned. But what's different about the Camp Fire is that Paradise was a community that had experience with wildfires and had planned for them. They had plans in place and evacuation procedures they had tested. So now, as communities are re-examining their own plans, the big question is: if Paradise's plans didn't work, what will work? No one has an answer yet. But everyone is trying to figure it out. That's what was surprising, that so many people are asking the same question and so many people don't have an answer.

Molly Peterson: I was most surprised by how differently smart engaged people in rural far Northern California see fire risk and fire management issues from smart engaged people in Central-Northern California and Southern California. Maybe more of us live in cities, but people who live in rural and resource areas have strong local knowledge and a connection to risk that deserves a place in the conversation. And this isn’t a left-right thing: this is a rural-urban thing.

Kat Snow: What surprised me was how many excellent solutions there are in small communities all over the state. It's not that we don't know how to do this — how to survive these increasingly unpredictable wildfires; it's that lawmakers and the public have to actually decide whether to do it, whether to make the changes in how people live and think about fire that would actually make a difference.

Who right now is doing the best with coming up with good ideas and implementing them regarding California wildfires?

Lauren Sommer: In our Living with Wildfire series, we covered a town called Rancho Santa Fe near San Diego that's right in a high risk fire zone. The area has burned before, so they've put in some strict rules about how the houses can be built and the types of vegetation in yards. One example: you can't have cypress or palm trees next to your house because they're so flammable. And the fire department checks every year. You also can't park on the street in some neighborhoods since it blocks fire trucks. But since it's a fairly wealthy community, they can afford to do this stuff.

How do you think laws and regulations will improve because of the severe damages caused by wildfires?

Danielle Venton: Disasters generally prompt demand for change. I think we'll continue to see lawmakers try to chip away at problems. At the state level, there is a bill making its way through the legislature that would require communities to address evacuation routes in their general plan. This was directly inspired by the Camp Fire. In the aftermath of the 2017 fires there were a number of new bills signed into law (things like garage doors have to have backup power sources). At the federal level, there is some movement to fast-track forest management projects.

Shortly after the Camp Fire broke out, Donald Trump criticized California for poor forest management practices, even though the federal government is responsible for most of the forest lands in the state. Can you speak to the efforts lawmakers like Sen. Bill Dodd, Asm. Cecilia Aguiar-Curry and others have made in terms of forest management legislation and how those efforts have ultimately played out since last year? Can you also discuss if the federal government has done anything to step up its responsibility when it comes to forest management practices?

Molly Peterson: Among fire scientists and land managers, “active management” is a term used to describe forest management practices that include brush removal, prescribed burns, mechanical thinning of vegetation, and tree removal. Tree removal has a legacy connotation in California, dating back to the Timber Wars, when environmentalists and loggers took absolutist positions in a bitter dispute that grew at times violent. But certainly in some communities, such as those I’ve visited in the Sierras and in Trinity County, that conversation has shifted, and community preference is to permit some removal of secondary and tertiary growth trees, not old-growth trees, though there are some who would still advocate for full protection of and exploitation of old growth areas.

Legislation is still evolving, and it’s hard to say yet whether laws that loosen tree thinning are supported by science. What we do know from a review of fire science is that more research suggests that both prescribed burns and thinning — to different degrees, but notably together — are valuable management tools. So both “raking the forest” and some tree removal aren’t ideas beyond the pale, but they’re definitely tools that scientists say need to be carefully deployed to be effective.

What can I do as an individual to help reduce wildfires and recovering areas besides donations? I really want to find a way where I can personally contribute with my own hands, not money — I’m in high school, so I can't become a firefighter yet. Also, what kind of preparation do you recommend people take to be wildfire ready?


Jeremy Siegel: In my reporting, I heard from a number of local officials and fire experts about the importance of community groups that work on fire safety. For many California communities these are called "Firesafe Councils." These groups tend to get together once a month or so, and they talk about little projects the community can take on to help with fire prevention and fire safety. That includes discussions about evacuation procedures, how people can clear brush from around their homes and what people should have ready in their evacuation "go bags" — things like that. When I spoke with the head of the Firesafe Council in Foresthill (a Sierra Foothill town), he said the most important thing people can do is become informed about wildfire safety themselves (by going to these meetings, for example) and then to spread the word around their community. So if you're looking for a way to help out, I'd say become a fire safety whiz and talk with other people in your community about what you've learned.