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California Wildfires

jingber's picture


            Wildfires have always been a common occurrence in California, but they have become a more major issue recently. Seven of the ten largest fires in the state’s history have come in the last six years. Scientists have become worried that the wildfires are occurring too often and with such great intensity that organisms living in the area of wildfires may die out. The effect on land animals is fairly straightforward, not only are many killed in the fires, but they also lose their habitats. However, aquatic organisms are also at risk. In the aftermath of one particularly large fire that took place this past summer, Forest Service officials said that the burn region was at risk for severe mudslides. Because of the size of the fire, much of the vegetation that would hold soil in place was lost. According to Robert Fisher, a biologist with the United States Geological Survey, “Cascading rock and debris can turn streams into roiling, concrete-like concoctions, burying or shredding all manner of aquatic life.” (1)
            Historical wildfire suppression and prevention strategies in the United States have been to suppress and prevent wildfires, at all times. This is in large part due to some of the early fires that settlers found in the Midwest. The Great Peshtigo Fire in 1871 burned over a million acres of land to the ground, and killed 1,500 people. The firestorm grew so large and drew in oxygen and fuel (from what were very dry forests in Wisconsin and Michigan) so quickly that it created internal winds up to 80 miles per hour, tearing the roofs off some buildings before incinerating them. Lumbering techniques at the time were primitive and left a lot of waste, so large piles of wood scraps - perfect fuel for the fire – were left outside many population centers in the region. (2) Because this and many of the other large fires in the late 1800s and early 1900s were caused by human carelessness, wildfires became to be seen as a human mistake that needed to be stopped. This led to the introduction of Smokey the Bear.
            Humans often have the peculiar method of reasoning by which they determine that natural events must have been caused by humans and must be prevented, while man-made events are simply a way of life and cannot be stopped. While many tragic human behaviors are seen as inevitable and just a reflection of the way people are, a usually naturally occurring event like a wildfire was seen as a catastrophic mistake. Early posters for Smokey the Bear led the public to think most forest fires were created by people, when in fact, in the case of Yellowstone, over 75 percent of fires are natural and sparked by lightning. (3)
            This started to change in the 1960s, when the effects of suppressing every forest fire started to become clear. Fires are an important part of the life cycle in many cases, and since the start of fire suppression policy, biologists realized that no new Giant Sequoia trees had grown in California. (4) Policy soon changed to allow for controlled burns, both naturally started and man-made. Current policy is to actively use fires to maintain the natural ecosystem, but without endangering human life.
            Two problems come into play with the current policy. The first focuses on the idea that we need to maintain the current ecosystem by careful fire management. Human beings often have this idea that nature is naturally self-sufficient and will always be there, and things only die out when humans play a role in their extinction. However, the vast majority of species that have ever been alive on the planet have died out. There is no reason that, by way of completely naturally occurring events, life couldn’t go the way of the dinosaur tomorrow, or that one species couldn’t hunt another to extinction. We can decide that preserving the current ecosystem is a good thing and we should always act to prevent loss of animal life, but to do so out of a sense that we should be taking steps to “preserve” the current environment is misguided at best. The natural ecological role of fires may occasionally be to burn the ecosystem down and restart the whole process of ecological succession all over again.
            The second problem ties into human interference. Why should we only let fires that are important for the ecosystem only burn until they threaten humans? And no, I’m not proposing we let people die in wildfires. However, maybe the idea of building homes in areas that need fires to maintain a healthy ecosystem (or to occasionally restart the ecosystem) is flawed, at best. If you build your house in tornado or hurricane or earthquake territory, you know that there’s a chance your home will be destroyed, and while you may take out an insurance plan, you never hear anyone calling for the government to prevent earthquakes from occurring. Just because we can prevent property damage from fires doesn’t mean we should, because it encourages people to do stupid things like build homes in a place that often has wildfires. If we figured out a way to prevent hurricanes, it would almost certainly not be in our best interests to do so, because like every other natural process, hurricanes surely play some role in the ecosystem.
            Even now, with more sensible controlled fire techniques, fuel buildup from fire suppression can be a problem, as many fires can’t take their natural course because the human population has spread itself out over so much land. There are some places people simply shouldn’t live, at least not if they don’t want to drastically change the ecosystem around them to allow for comfortable living. Perhaps we should start thinking of some parts of California this way.



Paul Grobstein's picture

ecological approaches to wildfires and beyond

The change from the Smokey the Bear era to the present one is indeed intriguing/instructive. Yes, forest fires frequently occur for non-human reasons, and episodes of destruction are important for ongoing biological evolution.  And perhaps, indeed, these "less wrong" understandings in turn have implications for what humans should (and should not) do.   Maybe there are related generalizations beyond the specific case of forest fires?