Breaking Down Wildfire: How Did We Get Here and What Should We Do About It?

It was a seemingly straightforward question from a close friend of mine, “Why are these wildfires getting worse and what are we doing about it”? At some point during my stammering, convoluted, and completely uninsightful response I realized that my job leads me to dig so deeply into the nuanced details of issues like wildfire and climate change that I’m awful at explaining what the heck is going on to anyone outside of my professional bubble. This blog is an attempt to fix that.

Similar to how unfixed car problems stack up on top of each other until your car just won’t start or – worse – dies suddenly on the side of the road, California’s wildfire crisis is the product of multiple factors coming to a head at the same time: right now. Unfortunately, there’s no single reason for why California has, just in the last two years, experienced the largest and most deadly fires in its history. 

Yes, for years investor-owned utilities shirked maintenance duties in favor of shareholder profits and lucrative executive salaries. Yes, fire suppression policies of the last century have led to overstocked and extremely flammable forests. Yes, land use decisions, the affordable housing crisis, and other factors have driven over 11 million Californians to live in the fire-prone “wildland-urban interface”. Yes, climate change has made California hotter, played a role in killing nearly 150 million trees that make ideal firewood, and dried out already flammable vegetation even more. 

Any one of these factors alone would make wildfires worse. Combined, however, they create a catastrophe that is affecting more and more Californians each year. 

Navigating and explaining the complex and numerous web of solutions is even more difficult than describing how we got here. This is where even subject matter “experts” like myself end up sounding like an idiot on the phone with their friends.

I needed to draw a picture to unravel the brain pretzel that hundreds of articles, reports, legislation, and conversations had twisted my answer to the question “so what should we do?” into.

I pulled up a Google Earth image of my hometown of Truckee along with the surrounding area and made arrows pointing to three zones: forestland (the mostly federally-managed wildland areas outside of town), wildland-urban interface (at the intersection of forestland and town limits), and residential/local area (within the town’s jurisdiction). Most of the solutions can be categorized into these three zones and it was helpful to visualize the buckets as to where each solution should be placed.

The bottom line is that each of these solutions should be pursued, but unfortunately none will be the proverbial “silver bullet” that makes the problem significantly better on its own. The tricky part for policy makers and advocates is putting forward an approach that balances these options appropriately.

Screen Shot 2019 11 27 at 2.16.54 PM

So while my friend’s question may have been straightforward, the answer is complicated regardless of whether you’re an expert or a casual observer.

All of these solutions will be on the table as the Legislature reconvenes in January with addressing the wildfire crisis as a top priority. Many Legislators will be focused on developing a bond measure for the November 2020 statewide ballot that invests in building resilience to climate change impacts. Funding for wildfire solutions will be front and center in this effort and SBC will fight for a balanced approach that prioritizes the health and well-being of Sierra Nevada communities and environment.

Image Courtesy Al Golub