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 longstanding 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.
But many experts say the state needs a massive scale-up in its “good fire” strategy to avert the destructive wildfires that are happening with increasing regularity.
Some experts are calling for the state to light small fires not only in the spring and fall, the traditional “shoulder season” before and after fire season, but in the winter too.
“With the climate changing, with us having drier winters, we’re going to have more opportunities for low-risk prescribed burning,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser for the University of California extension office.
Setting more controlled burns won’t be a panacea to California’s wildfire crisis. Many of the state’s most destructive fires have happened on shrubby chaparral landscapes, not forests.
“Burning chaparral doesn't do you any good,” North said. “You get rid of the grass and shrubs, and six months later you're back where you started.”
Keeping non-forested areas safe, he said, requires limiting development, hardening existing homes and reducing human-caused ignitions.
And scaling up controlled fire to the levels some experts are calling for won’t be easy. It could require state and federal agencies to rethink how they deploy personnel and resources. It could require federal lawmakers to rethink pollution standards. And state residents would have to get much more used to living with smoke.
Even a robust fire-prevention strategy will be fighting an uphill battle against the adverse conditions caused by climate change. Addressing forest health without reducing carbon emissions, experts say, will not solve the long-term problem.
California’s backlog of fire prevention work, including prescribed burns, also will come with a hefty price tag.
“The number is bigger than anything we've got available to spend,” said state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat who in 2018 authored a bill to allow for more controlled burns in the state. “It's in the billions, multi-billions. It's money that's not there right now.”
The state has increased its prescribed burning since Jackson’s bill passed. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, plans to burn 30,000 acres this fiscal year, largely in partnership with private landowners. That’s up from 25,000 last year, and the state hopes to eventually scale up to 50,000. But Jackson pointed out the state can only do so much, as most of its forests are owned by the federal government.
While Jackson called on the federal government to take more responsibility for prevention work, a U.S. Forest Service fire expert told Stateline that they had been banned from answering questions about the agency’s approach, likely due to the ongoing fire disaster in the state and the upcoming election.
North said the agency has set a goal of burning 500,000 acres of federal forests in the Sierra Nevada range, but it’s nowhere close to achieving that.
“Congress is not going to dole out money to make this happen,” he said. “This is just not a priority. We have to come up with some way of finding a revenue stream for fire to be put out on the landscape.”
The federal government’s appetite for funding prescribed fire could soon be put to the test. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, released a plan Thursday that would give federal agencies $600 million annually to light controlled burns on federal, state and private land. It faces a competing bill that seeks to remove vegetation by speeding up forestry projects – an approach opposed by many conservation groups.
Not everyone believes prescribed fire is the primary solution.
"Our ability to change landscape-scale patterns of fire is very limited," said Bryant Baker, conservation director at Los Padres ForestWatch, an environmental group on California's Central Coast. "There is no way to increase prescribed fire on the landscape where suddenly we won't have large fires anymore."
Baker noted that many of the recently-burned lands are not in forested areas and said that trying to control the scale and type of fire on a landscape is a futile exercise. Just because a wildfire burns a large number of acres doesn't mean it has ravaged the landscape, he said, and even high-severity fires can play an important role in certain ecosystems. Climate change is likely to make wildfires even harder to stop, and he urged leaders to focus on making homes and communities more resilient instead of trying to limit the spread of wildfire through land management.
"Climate change is going to get worse and we're going to see more and more fire, and these large fires aren't going anywhere just because we ramp up vegetation management," he said. "There's a false assumption that prescribed fire would prevent the fires we saw this year, which happened under extreme conditions — heat waves, lightning storms, wind storms."
But other experts think the current prescribed burn efforts — from the state to federal level — still need to scale up. Thomas wants the state to burn 1 million acres a year, a figure other experts also have suggested. The current state total of controlled burns each year across all lands is closer to 125,000 acres. Complaints about the expense, he said, are shortsighted.
“It's so insane to me to think about how open the bank account is during these megafire events and how little — pennies in a tin can — that we put into pre-suppression work,” Thomas said.
Scaling up controlled burns isn’t just a matter of spending more money. Successful burns require an alignment of ideal moisture levels in vegetation, proper weather conditions, workers and equipment. And that’s a tricky balance. For one thing, the fire experts needed to manage a large prescribed fire could be called away anytime to fight a wildfire.
From an air quality perspective, spring is the best time to burn, said Jason Branz, an air pollution specialist at the California Air Resources Board, part of the state Environmental Protection Agency.
“We like to encourage burning in the spring, when the atmosphere can more readily handle smoke,” Branz said. “But that doesn’t align with the fuels being dry enough to burn. If they’re too wet, they either don’t burn, or they produce too much smoke.”
Local Air Districts have the final say on whether a burn, whether on state or federal land, can go forward on a given day, but they’re guided by the daily burn decision advisories published by the California Air Resources Board. Amy MacPherson, a public information officer who specializes in prescribed fire and wildfires for the agency, said the warmer, drier climate has allowed for more burning in the winter. And while air regulators have a duty to minimize the smoke hazards from prescribed fires, she said, they acknowledge that some sacrifices may need to be made to avert worse disasters.
In the past, some health groups such as the American Lung Association have opposed prescribed fires due to air quality issues.
“Everyone recognizes that prescribed fire can produce smoke,” MacPherson said. “But smoke you can plan for and is short-lived is generally preferable to what we're seeing right now with these out-of-control wildfires. We're very supportive of efforts to increase the pace and scale of prescribed fire in California.”
Christine McMorrow, a Cal Fire spokesperson, said the agency is working with air regulators to make greater allowances for controlled burns. Residents sometimes oppose such fires because of smoke, but they may need to learn to live with that to avert worse disasters.
“The worst prescribed fire smoke impacts are nothing compared to what we're experiencing right now,” McMorrow said. “How can we open up that burn window to where we can burn on some of these days where we currently cannot?”
But prescribed burns are regulated federally as a human-caused source of emissions, said Rebecca Miller, a doctoral candidate at Stanford University who researches wildfire protection and prevention policy. That means smoke from prescribed burns is included in statewide emissions calculations, but wildfires are not.
“It’s like we’re fining ourselves for doing the thing that would ultimately reduce the sort of smoke that we’d have in the future,” she said.
It’s up to the federal government to change those pollution regulations, said Matt Hurteau, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico who studies how climate change affects forests.
State air quality regulators’ hands are tied, Hurteau said. “They’re responding to federal regulations, and the way ignition source is treated.”
With the current workforce, Quinn-Davidson said, late fall can be a better time to set a prescribed burn, because that is when wildland firefighting is winding down, but federal and state fire crews are still around.
“Once those seasonal crews are gone, and we get into the holiday season, and we get into the training season — and basically nobody thinks about fire for six months,” Quinn-Davidson said.
Setting more prescribed fires could require a larger, year-round workforce, as opposed to the seasonal teams which report in the summer as large fires erupt. Thomas acknowledged that will be a costly proposition, but still far less expensive than what the state is now spending on suppression.
Some prescribed fire experts in Northern California, where Quinn-Davidson lives and works, worry that the state’s increasingly arid climate and lengthening fire season could make it harder to set burns.
“The risks of doing prescribed fire on what used to be the ‘shoulder seasons’ is higher,” said Nick Goulette, executive director of the Watershed Center in Hayfork, California.
Quinn-Davidson argues instead that property owners, businesses and state and local agencies need to think beyond the traditional shoulder seasons. That will take more personnel — whether they’re state and federal employees or local volunteer firefighters — capable of managing controlled burns at other times of year.
“We don’t have a lot of capacity to do the proactive work at the times it could actually be done,” she said.
The burns historically set by California’s tribes did more than just prevent wildfires. They opened grazing areas for game animals and created conditions for important resources to be replenished. Ron Goode, chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe, has led many prescribed burns in Central California, coordinating with other tribes. He said the state needs to give more attention to restoring healthy ecosystems, rather than focusing only on fire suppression.
That could include burning areas more frequently but with lower intensity, as well as rethinking the densely planted, single-species plantations used in timber production, which are shown to burn more severely than natural forests. Goode also noted that liability issues can limit burning. Private landowners wary of Cal Fire’s burning practices face substantial risk if they light their own fire and something goes wrong.
“Most sane ranchers are looking at that and going, ‘I don't think so,’” he said. “‘Why would I take a risk like that? On the other hand, I sure don't want Cal Fire burning for me. They don't know how to burn properly and take care of the land.’”
California wouldn’t be the tinderbox it is today if more fires had been allowed to run their course and if climate change hadn’t allowed insect infestations and more drought. On remote federal lands, some fires are now being monitored and allowed to burn instead of immediately suppressed. But on lands overseen by Cal Fire, the agency says it doesn’t have that option.
“The majority of the state responsibility area lands, it's private property and that means that we have homes and people's livelihood at stake,” McMorrow said. “Our primary mission is to protect lives, property and natural resources — in that order.”
People who live in fire-prone areas, understandably, want fires near them extinguished as soon as possible. As a forester, Goulette knows the fire is a natural part of California’s ecosystems, but he said that even he — like everyone else in his community — worries when a new wildfire ignites nearby.
“When it’s in the backyard, it’ll just scare you,” he said. “Because it is a matter of life and death, and it is a matter of whether your home survives, or it doesn’t.”
Many of the fire-prone areas that historically burned in California are now cities and towns. The state has nearly 800,000 homes that face moderate to extreme risk from fire danger, a 2019 report found. Letting fires burn in places where the ecosystem demands it is not always possible anymore.
“A lot of places that used to have regular fire are now called ‘Sacramento,’ ‘San Francisco’ and ‘Fresno,’” Thomas said.
While it’s unclear how the state’s approach will change in the years to come, everyone agrees that living with fire — whether it’s a wildfire or a burn that’s intentionally set — is going to be a big shift for everyone in the state.
“This is a no-win situation, and no matter what we do, we are going to be confronting these wildfires,” said Jackson, the state senator. “If we don't start addressing this, we're going to lose this battle and we're going to lose this war.”