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What's Needed To Manage Wildfires


This weekend, much of the Western United States is under excessive heat warnings or advisories again. That heat, plus the extreme drought that's been afflicting the region, could make for a disastrous wildfire season this year in states like California. Last fire season in California was already the worst in the state's modern history, with nearly 10,000 fires burning over 4 million acres, killing 33 people and destroying thousands of properties. Forest management in California, as in most states, is a responsibility shared by state and federal authorities. We wondered if they're doing enough to adapt to what seems to be a growing threat from wildfires year after year. To help us answer that question, we called Scott Stephens. He's a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in wildfires and forest management. Professor Stephens, welcome.

SCOTT STEPHENS: Happy to be here.

KURTZLEBEN: So let's start with a big question. Why do fire conditions seem to be getting worse and worse over time in California?

STEPHENS: We have climate change impacting the state with higher temperatures, more drought, drying fuel. All of this contributes to our already vulnerable conditions from fire suppression and past harvesting. The other piece, which is really difficult, is so many people living in the wildland-urban interface. And this also causes great vulnerability.

KURTZLEBEN: Quick point of information there. You mentioned the phrase wildland-urban interface. Can you tell us what that is?

STEPHENS: Yes. This is the area where we have people living in and among the wildland vegetation of California and elsewhere in the United States. It's a place where maybe people are living on 1 acre, 5 acres of land, but sometimes they're actually a subdivision right adjacent to a forest or sometimes a shrubland. So it really is an environment where you're right next to or within the wildland areas from a fire behavior standpoint. And no doubt, many of these areas are very vulnerable in the state.

We've seen some terrible fires - Camp Fire, the wine country fires in 2017, where we just have enormous numbers of homes and lives impacted by wildfire. And this is an area of incredible importance in the state. I think we have to get our communities themselves better prepared for the inevitability of fire and these systems. And I'm afraid that a lot of communities underappreciate their vulnerabilities to fire.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, when it comes to mitigating this problem, we know that for the last few decades, fire suppression has been the policy in California. Can you give us a primer on this? What is that exactly?

STEPHENS: You're right. We've been really suppressing all fires in California for near a hundred years. Before that, Indigenous burning was suppressed for a lot of other reasons. And they used to burn an awful lot. They're still burning some today. But we get the idea that we - can get rid of fire than our forest would actually be improved, mostly from a timber objective. That worked for a few decades.

But by the '50s and '60s, people were asking big questions about, why are we starting to see more fires? Why are we investing more in fire suppression? And we're not really seeing increased results in terms of reducing fire impacts. And even today, same questions persist. But one thing's for certain - if we don't actually address the fundamental aspects of this, which is actually the fuels and forest and restoration, it doesn't matter how much money you put on the suppression side. We will never fix this problem unless we actually work to actually make our forests more in a condition to deal with fire and climate change. We have to get that work done.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, when it comes to suppression, there is that argument that is made that suppression contributes to extreme fires by letting fuel build up on the floor of the forest. I'm curious. Do you think that fire suppression has contributed to these fires?

STEPHENS: It has in the long run. And then you add climate change on top of that, it gets even worse. So there's no doubt that the way we've managed fire in this state for a hundred years has contributed to our current conditions.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, this all may bring to mind for some of our listeners former President Trump, who blamed state authorities for some of the more severe fires. He repeatedly talked about cleaning up forest floors to get rid of dry, combustible materials. And he was widely criticized for some of those comments. What was your take on those in retrospect?

STEPHENS: You know, I heard those comments, too. In some ways, they weren't that far off. I'm afraid the way he characterized it was a little simplistic. You know, we need to do prescribed burning, get rid of surface fuel, the surface fuel - the dead and down woody debris on the surface of the forest. We also need to get rid of the trees that actually can provide some vertical continuity of the fire from the surface of the ground into the canopy. We call those ladder fuels. So we do need to work on that. We can use prescribed burning. We can use restoration thinning, mechanical treatments. And in some instances, we can use managed wildfire in remote areas. So his comments weren't that far off, but they weren't completely informed.

KURTZLEBEN: With climate change essentially ensuring that conditions will continue to get more suitable for big fires, do you have any hope in the state and federal governments' ability to manage future fire seasons?

STEPHENS: This is a great question. And I actually have a lot of hope. You know, I really do believe that we could do some work now in the next 10 to 20 years, which is actually probably the most important period now, to do our restoration thinning, do the work that actually says we're going to go into a forest and we're going to actually identify what we want to leave for restoration and we're going to take the excess of that. We're going to do the prescribed burning to get the fire back into these systems. And then again, managed wildfire. I know that it's such a big issue for this state. Look at what's going on. So many people losing homes, smoking out communities, huge cities for months at a time, huge impacts to water quality. Lake Oroville just had a huge fire in the middle fork of the Feather River, the largest tributary to Lake Oroville, which is the largest lake in the state water project.

These are enormous issues. On top of that, giant sequoia areas in southern Sierra Nevada last year - severe fires killed, we think, 10% of the giant sequoia old growth trees in the state. So it's not as if we're wondering what's going to happen. It's happening right now. So that just tells me that we have to get on the system to get this work in earnest. My estimate is we need to do 10 times more restoration thinning and prescribed burning to start to change the rudder of the ship.

KURTZLEBEN: That was Scott Stephens. He is a professor at UC Berkeley, specializing in wildfire science and forest management. Professor Stephens, thank you for speaking with us.

STEPHENS: Happy to have talked today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.