Worsening Wildfire Environment Spurs Call for New Strategies

The ongoing California drought is blamed for increasingly destructive fires throughout the state.

In the midst of an ongoing drought, with the wildfire toll increasing despite the allocation of more firefighting resources, calls for new strategies are getting attention.

"We have put ourselves in danger," said Char Miller, Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. "And so, some of this is not about nature, it's about us."

Miller calls for more efforts to increase defensible space around homes near wildland, retrofitting of older structures to make them more fire resistant and action by local government to scrutinize and control development into wildland.

"If we're in those landscapes, then we have to accept the risk and we have to defend ourselves," Miller said. "But that's not a discussion that any zoning commission has on any regular basis."

Last week, the Blue Cut Fire grew so quickly from its origin in the Cajon Pass that fire officials said no amount of resources on ground or air could have stopped its charge.

"In all honesty, I don't think anything would have made a difference," said John Chamberlin, Assistant Chief of the San Bernardino County Fire Department. "It was so aggressive there was no way to get ahead of it."

Like many veteran firefighters, Chamberlin blamed the ongoing drought for conditions and fire behavior the likes of which he had not previously encountered.

"Drought is the essential driver of firestorms we've been looking at," Miller said.

In California history, 13 of the 20 largest wildfires by area have occurred in the 16 years of the new millenium, according to CalFire, the California Deptartment of Forestry and Fire Protection. This period has also seen drier than average conditions throughout the western United States.

The cost of fighting major wildfires has accelerated since the most recent drought began in 2012.

Three years ago, the state budgeted $127 million for the emergency fire fund, and ended up spending $242 million, according to data from CalFire. Last fiscal year, the state budgeted $398 million, and spent $547 million, the difference made up by transfers from other areas of the budget, explained CalFire's Daniel Berlant.

For the 2016-17 fiscal year, which began in July, California budgeted $424 million, and has already spent $155 million, Berlant said.

On the national level, a bill developed by the Senate Natural Resources Committee, the "Wildfire Budgeting, Response and Forest Management Act" would attempt to stabilize funding for coping with fires on federal land.

The very model of extinguishing wildfires has come into question by many, including UC Riverside Earth Sciences Professor Richard Minnich. He contends a century of suppressing wildfires has created more dangerous conditions by interfering with the natural process of lightning-sparked fires burning off dry vegetation and naturally thinning forests. As a result, under the theory, during high-risk conditions of wind, heat and low immediate, a fire that starts and cannot be suppressed will have more fuel to burn and be more destructive than it otherwise would have been.

In some cases, firefighters do allow wildland fires to burn and consume fuel. It is more easily done in areas far from where people live. In the area where the Blue Cut fire burned, though relatively rural by Southern California standards, the homes of more than 80,000 were threatened by the fire, incident commanders calculated. 

"We were so engaged with evacuations during the initial operations period that we were not even able to set backfires, we were so focused on saving life," Chamberlin said.

"There's a new normal we have to adjust to," Miller said. "Rather than trying to manage the fires, let's manage the people."

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