The Terrifying Future of California Wildfires: 'It's Going to Get Worse'
After a year of record-breaking fires, the state is bracing for what comes next.
Malibu, California, on November 9. Photo by David McNew/Getty
Seven years into a severe drought, stuck in a wildfire season that never seems to end, it’s clear that California has entered a new era. The increasing size, intensity, and frequency of wildfires in the state has agencies doubling down on prevention and management measures. California has allocated $1 billion over the next five years for fire protection, and while the future of fire preparedness still involves traditional methods of prevention and protection, like thinning forests with prescribed burns, and adding firefighter personnel and resources, many climate scientists and researchers suggest that we start treating fires more like floods and earthquakes—not as something we can manage, but rather as disasters beyond our control.
Those who were affected by the deadliest wildfire season in history already know how little control we have over these blazes. At least 85 people died in the Camp Fire, which scorched 153,000 acres of Butte County and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes. These sorts of conflagrations are likely to become the norm, rather than the exception. A bleak forecast was outlined in the federal government's recently released 1,656-page national climate assessment, which predicted a rise in wildfires and noted, “Analyses estimated that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States from 1984 to 2015 was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred.”
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Michael Wehner, a senior staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told VICE. “There are two harsh realities: One is, the dangerous climate change is already here. It’s not our children’s problem, it’s not our grandchildren’s problem, it’s our problem. It’s not just fires. The second harsh reality is, it’s going to get worse. Even if today we decided as a planet that we were going to make significant reductions in our carbon emissions, there’s residual warming that’s yet to happen because the oceans respond slowly.”
Scientists and fire experts VICE spoke with expect the trend of increasingly devastating wildfires to continue. Throwing money at the problem helps, but may only go so far. “The basic problem is, we’ve seen the fire risk rise so rapidly that the investments in fuel reduction and fire risk reduction haven’t been able to keep up,” said Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
Cal Fire, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, is hiring seasonal firefighters, upgrading its aircraft fleet (it already has the largest department-owned fleet in the world), and designating crews to work solely on prescribed burns and fuel reduction year-round. In addition, it is increasing outreach and education for communities on how to prepare for fires, with a new app and a website outlining everything from evacuation tips to safety considerations when returning home after a fire. Still, preparation doesn’t guarantee safety.
“We try,” said Scott McLean, Cal Fire’s information officer. “We’ve just been hit with some serious incidents this year alone. The weather, the Carr Fire, the fire tornado—how do you prepare for that?”
The town hit hardest by the recent Camp Fire, for example, was extremely prepared. “Paradise was prepared more so than almost any community for a wildfire,” McLean told me. “They had an evacuation drill earlier this year where they practiced how to get people out of town, they educated community members on what to do, what to pack, have your go-bag ready.” But of course, nothing could have prepared them for the firestorm that came through. There were six ways out of town, but many of those exits were quickly overtaken by flames. “Unfortunately, the fire hit so hard, so fast, so big, it enveloped the community,” said McLean. “Fifty-mile-per-hour winds pushed this fire.” Massive amounts of embers traveled so quickly from structure to structure, he said, “that it started multiple fires within Paradise.”
Even residents not immediately threatened by fire had to contend with the dangerous air quality that hung for weeks after throughout much of California. “This widespread impact of the smoke means that we need to think about wildfires a little differently,” said Field. “A lot of the emphasis on preparation and on safety has been about the people who have homes that are in the wildland-urban interface. But the smoke issue makes it clear that we really need to think about health and safety of everyone, even if there’s a fire in total wilderness.”
One of the largest fires in California’s history was the 1932 Matilija fire, which burned 220,000 acres in Ventura Country—but didn’t kill anyone or incinerate any structures, in part because the state wasn’t as crowded. Compare that to July’s Mendocino Complex fire, which set the record for the state’s largest wildfire when it spread across almost 460,000 acres and burned 280 structures, killing one person.
“It’s a human demography problem,” said Jon Keeley, a scientist with the US Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center. “My view is these fires are not the role of climate change, there are more direct factors that are largely responsible. That doesn’t mean climate change isn’t playing a role. It exacerbates the effect of these fires.” The issue is that more people living in a high-risk area bring more opportunity for fire, he explained. There are more homes that could catch fire, more infrastructure like power lines that could ignite a fire during extreme winds. Keeley said many homes in Paradise were incinerated by the Camp Fire, but the trees around those homes were intact, indicating that the fire was wind- and ember-driven, rather than burning through the forest.
“We need to look at better land planning,” Keeley said. “Right now there are restrictions on where you can build relative to earthquake faults, (and) flood hazards, but we don’t have any sore of fire zoning that says you can’t build here because it’s too hazardous. It’s time to recognize that we need to zone for fire.”
Cal Fire maps out areas of the state in terms of fire risk. Paradise was in a very high fire severity zone. “There are places in California where, based on rational evaluation, the risk is simply too high to have communities,” said Field. “I would argue that we have areas in the wildland-urban interface where the fire risk is simply not manageable and we need to figure out a way to relocate those communities. It’s a big challenge to ask a whole community to move, obviously.”
It’s been done before in varying degrees. For years, FEMA has offered a voluntary buyout program to homeowners in areas that see repeat flooding. The homes are then demolished and the property is designated as open space. After Hurricane Sandy, about 80 percent of the residents of the Oakwood Beach neighborhood in Staten Island took government buyouts to leave. The town of Shishmaref, Alaska, has been asking the federal government for assistance in relocating for years, to no avail, as it erodes into the sea. In 2016, the federal government paid $48 million to relocate the entire population of Isle de Jean Charles in southeastern Louisiana.
Could the same principle be applied to fire risk areas?
“Exactly how you do that is going to be a challenge,” said Field. “But it also would be part of a way to revitalize and rejuvenate communities, and have a paradigm in which people are moving to something rather than be forced away.”
For people living in areas with a moderate risk of fire who might not require such drastic measures, Field emphasized the importance of stronger fire preparedness in general, like creating defensible space, which is the buffer between a home and any shrubs or vegetation, and building homes that are difficult to ignite. Equally important is “making sure that when there is a need to move people quickly out of an area, they don’t get stuck in traffic jams,” he said. “If you look at so many of the fires that have resulted in loss of life, a lot of the problem has been that the only exit routes people had were blocked by fallen trees or fallen power lines and that’s a challenging issue, but it’s an engineering problem we should be able to solve.”
City planning and infrastructure fixes, Field pointed out, reach far beyond fire preparedness. “Having a good transportation network, a good communications network, good public health infrastructure would make a difference in the recent wildfires,” he said. “But they also would make a difference if we had a terrorist attack or a major chemical spill or any of the kinds of things that we’re likely to encounter. When you think about the kind of expenditures that are required for increasing disaster preparedness, there some real value in saying, ‘What are the steps that are going to help me out no matter what kind of disaster I’m going to face?’”
There have been over 7,500 fires in California since January. McLean said that 95 percent of wildland fires are kept at ten acres or less. Measures like defensible space and prescribed burns work. In many cases, firefighters are able to get the blazes under control. “One week during the siege earlier on in the year, we had 1,000 wildfire starts with all the other big fires we had burning at that time, that no one ever heard about, the troops at home were able to keep in check,” McLean said.
But the larger, unpredictable fires are the ones to worry about.
“I think at this point, we’re beyond thinking that we can mitigate our way out of this problem,” said Wehner. “We also have to adapt. Because there have been significant changes in extreme weather that have large impact—hurricanes, heat waves, and floods—that it doesn’t make any sense to rebuild to the old standard. Because these things are just going to happen more frequently.”