Natural Disasters

Why California's Wildfires, Like Everything Else, Keep Getting Worse

This season's fires are already uniquely deadly and devastating, and the trend-lines do not look good.
Firefighters from the city of Fountain Valley try to hold back flames from the Canyon Fire 2 along Santiago Canyon Road on October 9th, 2017 in Anaheim Hills, California. (Photo by Stuart Palley/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Image

Large swaths of California are ablaze right now, with an estimated 17 wildfires raging across eight counties that have so far burned well over 100,000 acres. The fires began late Sunday in and around northern California's wine country, prompting tens of thousands of residents to evacuate and killing at least 15 people; hundreds more have been reported missing. Meanwhile, as of Tuesday morning, the two largest fires—the Tubbs and Atlas Peak fires—remained at or near 0 percent containment.


At the same time, Southern California is battling its own wildfire in the Anaheim Hills, a blaze known as Canyon 2. That fire has burned around 7,500 acres, with at least one related injury known to police. And as the New York Times reports, even before this latest outbreak, the National Interagency Fire Center had recorded a significant increase in the reach of American wildfires so far this year: 8.5 million acres, compared to last decade's average of closer to six million, raising the prospect of a dire situation steadily getting worse over time.

For perspective on why California's annual wildfire season seems to be getting even more destructive, we called up William Stewart, co-director of the UC-Berkeley Center for Fire Research and Outreach. When it comes to the region's short-term recovery from the current fires, what he told us was not exactly encouraging; his longer-term outlook for the state and the country at large was downright grim.

Here's what he had to say.

VICE: What's going on in California right now—how much of this is the state's annual wildfire season, how much is some remarkable change we should be uniquely alarmed about?
William Stewart: We finally had a wet winter, and then all that fuel [shrubs and grasses] dried out. So the fires that are going on in Sonoma and Napa [counties]—those are driven by what are called the Diablo Winds, which are a high-pressure zone that starts out in Nevada and creates this massive continuous wind event. Those we don't get at this severity all the time, [but] the 1991 Oakland fire was caused by the same thing.


So the Diablo Winds, those are kind of episodic, but this has been a big year. The fires we're having in Sonoma—that's the kind we get every 20 years with these serious Diablo Winds here. It is getting worse over time: the fires in Sonoma are off the charts, due to how windy it was there.

When you have winds with an ignition near urban areas, that's when the fires get really big. You need both the fuel and the ignition. That's what happened with this one: they had a lot of ignitions, mainly from the wind knocking down power lines.

What is the larger pattern in terms of the scale of wildfires in the west?
Fires go up and down every year, but decade to decade there's been a clear, consistent increase in the acreage burned in the western United States, for a variety of reasons. It's getting warmer. Also: There's a lot more fuel out on a lot of forest rangelands because, especially on federal lands, we're doing less timber harvesting and we're doing less grazing, so there's just more stuff to burn. But on all types of lands, we are seeing an increase in probability of them burning.

Why is there less grazing on these lands?
Grazing has never really been a profitable business, so people are taking their cows off the land and waiting to sell it to a vineyard or something. There's also less grazing on federal land, though. When you don't graze, the shrubs come in, and shrubs are actually better fuel than grass, so over time much of the west—there's just more fuel out there. A lot of the federal land has been turned into wildlife habitat, so it wasn't the wrong thing to do, it's just that we have more stuff to burn now, compared to the 1950s when we were running more cattle and sheep and goats, and there was more activity out there.


So the decline of agriculture in part led to an increase in wildfires?
Yeah, as we've done less grazing and less timber harvesting, there's more fuel out on the western landscape. We've seen people driving around, throwing cigarette butts out, dragging chains on the back of their vehicles, running their chainsaws, starting fires because they're lost. So people are always creating ignitions, and there just is now more stuff to burn. And we have more hot, dry days.

How much of a factor can we reasonably say climate change might be in these larger wildfires?
Climate change is definitely a significant piece of why we're having more fires. The long-term trend is more fires, and clearly we are having warmer, dryer weather in the west. Especially in California, in our Mediterranean climate and also in the Rocky Mountains, there are more days where if you're going to have lightning ignition or somebody throwing out a cigarette butt, it's going to burn hotter, because it's warmer outside. Climate change is definitely driving the increase.

So even though these fires are typically caused by humans—throwing out a cigarette butt, starting a bonfire—the environmental conditions are such that it will lead to a worse fire than the same act might have previously?
Both in 1950 and now, if you throw a cigarette butt out the window, you'd have a fire. But there's a good chance the fire now will be larger, more acres burned. Instead of a 100-acre fire, it's 150 acres. You're always going to have fires, but they're getting bigger. When it's hotter and drier, the fire grows faster. Even if they buy fancier aircraft to try and put them out, it's going to be harder to put out. We spend more money on firefighting equipment, but we're still seeing an increase in the acreages of wildfires. If we didn't spend the money on new aircraft and fire trucks, it probably would have gone up even more.


What kind of improvements in infrastructure could we make that would reduce the severity of these fires? Would we have to somehow get rid of all that fuel you described across the west?
I don't think we're going to do that, because that fuel is also wildlife habitat. It's nice to look at. The infrastructure we're losing is mainly homes. It's just like we've retrofitted buildings to withstand earthquakes, we're probably going to have to retrofit more housing so that when fires come it doesn't get into the house, it doesn't catch the roof on fire, you don't get embers pulled in, the windows don't blow out.

California has increased our building standards so that all houses in high fire-risk areas have to have double-paned windows so they don't crack if there's a fire outside. That's often when you get a house fire—is when the windows break and then the fire can get in. It's going to be expensive, but that's one way to reduce the number of houses that are burned in a fire is to make them what we called "fire hardened," so you don't have wood shingles that catch on fire; instead they're treated with chemicals or you use tiles. So to meet the new fire standards in California, I heard it adds $5000 to $10,000 to the cost of a house, and people say, "We don't want to spend that amount of money," but just like earthquake retrofitting, it's an increasingly sensible investment.

What kind of state and federal responses do you expect to a wildfire of this magnitude?
The fires in northern California right now are on private land, so the state is responsible for the firefighting. When you have these really big fires, the federal government reimburses the state for extraordinary expenses. That's one way the government helps, basically federal cost-sharing for disasters through FEMA. But on federal lands, where the federal government is responsible for the fuels management and fire suppression, there may be some greater interest in having them think about, "We have this increasing trend, are there things we should do in terms of fuels management?" Not to remove it all, but to put in fire brakes or build another fire station.


I think we're going to start to see a push for more federal expenditures to try to reduce the scale of these wildfires, because clearly it's going up and a lot of public assets, like the watersheds where, in California, we get a lot of our water, a lot of trees are burned there and there's a lot of silt coming into our reservoir. There's big costs to these things, there's huge public health impact from having smoke for weeks on end, it's not good for people to breathe that. There's going to be a push for them to invest more money in fire suppression and fire management on federal land because of the public health issues and the loss of public assets.

Do you expect the current administration to be receptive to those requests?
This administration doesn't want to spend any more money and they're probably going to tell the Forest Service to reduce their budget or find money elsewhere. It would mean increasing the size of government to solve the problem, and you know, that runs afoul of Congress and the current White House. I think people are going to suggest it, but I don't think we're going to see more money.

What does that mean for the people whose property and livelihoods—not to mention loved ones' actual lives—have just been lost in the fires?
What we're seeing in California is that the state ends up spending more money on fire management and suppression. People in California are voting to increase the amount of money they spend on it, because it's expensive to lose homes. When all the cell-phone towers burn down, which is happening now in California, people are wondering, "Why isn't my cell phone working?" Well, it's because we put all the cell phone towers out in the forest on top of mountains. And the power went out and they burned down. So now people are going to want that infrastructure rebuilt.

I think we're going to see states have to put in more of the money for that, rather than wait for the federal government.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Follow Lauren Lee White on Twitter.