The wildfires in California are horrific, and that’s just the beginning: at this writing, there are nearly 100 major wildfires in the West, half along the coast. There’s a series of major disasters underway, and the best we can do at this point is contain the damage.
What makes it worse is, we can be pretty sure it’ll happen again — and again, and again.
2018 was the worst wildfire season in California, though the massive blazes underway today are well on track to beat the record. Before that, though, the largest recorded was the Santiago Canyon Fire of 1889, when more than 300,000 acres burned. Analysis of that event — over ground that’s burning again today, incidentally — shows that it’s typical of the Mediterranean climate in the region. It’s not a matter of fire suppression methods or even severe drought conditions; that type of scrubland just burns from time to time. The only thing to be done about it, apparently, is to not let people live there.
The same cannot be said of all the fires on the West Coast, however. The Great Fire of 1889 can’t reasonably be blamed on anthropogenic warming trends (it took place during the Little Ice Age, after all), and subsequent fires in the same terrain given similar conditions appear inevitable. However, most of the current devastation is taking place in and around state and national forests, in northern California and up through Oregon. These areas are most definitely warmer and drier than they have been any time in the past century and more (again, see Little Ice Age).
Skeptics may cavil at warming trends being manmade, but it would be unreasonable to suggest that humanity hasn’t substantially altered the landscape, particularly in that large structure running intermittently from Portland all the way south to Bakersfield and beyond — just north of L.A. County. Now filled with cities and farms, this entire vast area was originally a network of seasonal streams, lakes, and swamps. This is important, because swamps, being somewhat soggier than the chaparral country above San Diego, tend to have some difficulty burning. (It’s partly the standing water but mostly the absence of underbrush.)
The case of Tulare Lake is extremely well documented. Only one of several similar lakes in the massive, 20,000 square mile basin, before the water began to be diverted for farmland and municipal use it regularly overflowed, feeding other lake and stream systems all the way north to San Francisco. Gradually, settlers drained the land and managers dammed the streams for flood control, until today the entire basin is dry — and arguably the most productive farmland in the United States.
The same formula was repeated throughout the entire California Central Valley, and again further north in Oregon: People moved in, dammed the rivers, drained the swamps, and started farming. And, unsurprisingly, the nearby forests started to burn — much to the chagrin of those living under their eaves. Today, there are thousands of people in danger of losing their homes, but in a very real sense this is because they live in a place that will inevitably burn every few years.
Of course they can’t be blamed for that; we’ve only recently begun to understand the way these things work. Even now people will “tut-tut” and blame climate change — which is a fair description — but they think of CO2 rather than a systematic program to drain a hundred thousand square miles of lakes and streams and swamps. (Again, there’s every indication that warming conditions are making the fires worse, but that’s hardly the whole story.)
Still, this is hardly a unique phenomenon. Every time New Orleans gets flooded out by a hurricane, people rebuild in the same spot. Houston had a vast system of primitive dikes and levees — and authorized industrial development in them, which didn’t go well during Hurricane Harvey. California and Oregon are about to receive massive influxes of Federal disaster aid, and some of it will inevitably be used to rebuild houses in 20-year fire zones — Paradise alone has been “wiped off the map” at least six times in the past few decades. Something needs to change; Keeley and Zedler think it had better be zoning policy.
Back in 2018, Donald Trump was ridiculed for his suggestion that Finland rakes their forest floors, and rightly so. However, his absurd language aside, the general concept is neither unknown nor entirely without merit; after intense cutting, lumber harvesters in Finland are usually required to chip leftover stumps and branches. Systematic harvesting in selected belts within our vulnerable national forests, using similar methods — including replanting — could be used as a tool to create regular firebreaks miles wide. Chaparral and sage brush fires in California can be reduced in scope by having regular controlled burns. It’s largely environmental protesters that prevent this from being regularly practiced — though, to be sure, it’s also sometimes politics.
Or we could try the more extreme solution — move thirty million people out of California, turn concrete jungle into well-watered parkland, rip out the dams, reservoirs, and illegally-harvested lettuce plantations, and Restore Tulare Lake.
(Speaking of politics: During the upcoming elections, Democrats will be tempted to point at the California wildfires as a reason to vote Biden, saying “The world is literally on fire.” I would urge them not to — first, because it presents a point of emotional contention, a debate instead of a compelling argument; and second because it’s local land management and zoning practices that have put us where we are today — and the local government is Democrats, and has been for generations. Talk about climate change all you like, but don’t restrict it to CO2 — and if you’re going to use wildfires as an example, learn about them first. Here are some very useful links. -Editor)