LOS ANGELES — The California drought is so severe and forests so tinder dry that wildfires are erupting in every corner of the state at a rate 50 percent higher than in 2014 — a year that already saw a 150 percent increase from an average year.
More than 50,000 acres have burned so far this year. This protracted drought has extended the fire season and caused unprecedented winter fires in California’s northernmost counties.
But it has also sparked unprecedented agreement on one thing: Forests need to burn.
“We’ve been suppressing fire for 100 years now,” said Ken Pimlott, the chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “There is no way we can let natural fires burn on private lands but we have to find other ways to manage the vegetation. Prescribed fire is absolutely one of the best tools.”
Prescribed, managed or controlled fires is when fire agencies intentionally set a fire to reduce dense, flammable brush that could spark a much bigger wildfire.
Cal Fire is in a tough spot because its mission is to save homes and buildings that have consistently creeped up closer and closer to forests. And even when fires are set intentionally to clear vegetation and are controlled by firefighters, nearby residents often complain of the smoke that it creates.
“We turned fire into an enemy,” said Craig Thomas, the conservation director at the Sierra Forest Legacy.
But, he said, fire is a natural process that makes forests less prone to the sort of massive blazes that have now broken out across the Pacific Northwest.
“If we had natural fire intervals, we wouldn’t have these big megafires,” Thomas said. “We have to use fire to mitigate fire.”
If development hadn’t continued its relentless spread into wildland areas, requiring fires to be doused as soon they break out, natural fires would’ve burned about half a million acres in the Sierra Nevada, said Malcolm North, research scientist with the U.S Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station. But managed fires are burning only 35,000 acres a year — about 8 percent of what nature used to ignite.
“It’s kind of a sobering picture,” said North, also a professor at the University of California Davis. “We’re way behind the curve in reducing fuel … The problem is that much of the forest land out there has a lot of homes.”
But the ongoing extreme drought, now in its fourth year, is changing firefighting strategies. The U.S. Forest Service has just launched plans for each of its 155 national forests for the first time in 33 years. In California, the agency has identified eight zones in the Southern Sierras that should be managed by fire.
“It’s a big shift,” North said. “A bunch of people in the science community have been pushing for this.”
The economics of managing fire as opposed to putting them out is also being heard.
“It’s in the order of four to five times the cost per acre to put out a wildfire than to let the fire burn and do good ecology,” North said.
If the forest service plan survives public review, about half of the 1-million-acre Sierra National Forest east of Fresno would fall into fire zones.
Two gigantic fires that were among the largest in California history — the 2013 Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest and the 2014 King Fire in El Dorado County —rang the alarm and fueled concern among ecologists.
“These fires are delivering a wake-up call,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to do more than fire suppression.”
Money to fight fire with fire has been lacking, said Ed Smith, a forest ecologist with the Nature Conservancy.
“The fund that pays for the thinning and controlled burning [is] in the budget for fighting fires,” he said.
A broad coalition of conservation, timber, and tribal groups are behind the proposed bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015.
The bill would change how the federal government budgets for the suppression of wildfire disasters by funding it the same way it funds other disasters.
“It would help establish an emergency fund at the national level,” Smith said, freeing up money for fire management programs. “It might be interesting or good for taxpayers to know that it’s much less expensive to do the proactive work to fight fire than to clean up the mess afterwards.”
Cal Fire, responsible for 31 million acres in California – all of it on private land – is investing in new fire prevention programs. Property owners in high-risk areas are assessed an annual fee that now goes directly into fire prevention funds. Communities can apply for grants to pay for tree cutting. Cal Fire staff are working with local planning departments and fire district to ensure that new development is not approved in areas that may not be near access roads or ample water supplies. The agency hired about 75 state inspectors to meet with homeowners to make sure homes are up to fire codes and that those close to forests maintain a 100-foot clearance.
“We’re really trying to raise the bar,” Pimlott said. “It’s the first opportunity where we’re really starting to see the momentum … and common interests as it relates to prescribed burning.”
Pimlott’s response to those who worry that intentionally burning forests will worsen air pollution: “A forest wildfire is going to emit much greater amount of carbon all at once then if we go and do it in a managed way.”
Plus, there may be no other way.
“Frankly, given the numbers and where we’re at, we really don’t have a choice anymore,” North said.