Federal Regulations Have Made Western Wildfires Worse

“Take controlled burns: fires that are lit on purpose, intentionally burning tinder to keep potentially larger, unintentional wildfires from finding fuel. Especially since the 1960s, efforts to extinguish all fires—even natural, low-impact forest fires that serve as nature’s equivalent of a controlled burn—have made forests more susceptible to larger fires and have made controlled burns more and more necessary.

But the regulatory requirements one must meet before starting a controlled burn are complex and lengthy. According to Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation and an adjunct fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center, the National Environmental Policy Act requires “a couple-thousand-page document analyzing every single conceivable impact to the environment that the plan might have.” This is a public process, Wood adds, that “often results in litigation.” There’s even more paperwork when the controlled burn might overlap with areas designated as critical habitat for an endangered species.

“What you’ll often find,” Wood says, “is that there are projects which have been extremely well-vetted, which have been years in the work, there will be a 5,000-page document, which no one could conceivably ever read because it’s so long and complicated, but then the project will still get put on hold for an indefinite period of time, because some special interest group filed a lawsuit.” So much time is spent considering the ramifications of an action; little is spent considering the impact of doing nothing.”

“The Clean Air Act of 1990 creates another obstacle. The law treat the smoke from a controlled, prescribed burn as a pollutant that must be analyzed and permitted before the burn can be done. The smoke from a wildfire is not similarly scrutinized. But needless to say, the environmental impact of a multi-state wildfire is much larger than that of a smaller controlled burn.

There is no magic bullet when it comes to the issue of preventing wildfires. But if we want to stop disasters of the scale, state and federal governments need to rethink forest management. They could start by easing the regulatory burden upon proven techniques.”

California’s recurring wildfire problem, explained

“This August was California’s warmest on record (as it was for five other states as well), setting the stage for the extraordinary streak of extra-large fires burning now. Five of the current fires are in the 20 largest wildfires in the state’s history: the August Complex (the largest blaze in state history as of Thursday), the SCU Lightning Complex, the LNU Lightning Complex, the North Complex, and the Bear Complex. As their names hint, these are megafires that gained size and strength when smaller fires combined into unified blazes.

The heat wave that preceded this terrifying swarm was not a blip. The weeks of arid, hot air that crisped out the forests and shrubs now aflame are part of a familiar pattern of extreme weather events: the climate crisis accelerating right in our faces.

As the climate heats up, many other states in the West, including Oregon and Colorado, are seeing larger, more devastating fires and more dangerous air quality from wildfire smoke. But California is at particular risk, both because its increasingly volatile weather may bring more droughts than other states and because it has more people and more buildings.”

“California’s forests and shrublands have been subjected to wildfire pretty much forever; fire is a natural part of many of the state’s ecosystems and the Indigenous peoples of California set controlled burns to manage the landscape. What’s different now is that the season is getting longer, it’s gotten harder to manage the forest, and the fires are on average getting bigger and more destructive.

“Climate change is amplifying fire behavior and fire size,” Alan Ager, a researcher at the US Forest Service who studies how to manage wildfire risk on federally managed forests and other lands, told Vox in 2019. “Fire can travel larger distances” than in the past because there’s more fuel.

The basic recipe for a monster 21st century wildfire is this: Take hot air and no rain and moisture evaporating from trees, shrubs, and soil. After a series of these long, expansive, hot, dry spells, trees and shrubs will be transformed into ideal tinder to feed a fire. The bigger the area affected, the more available fuel. All you need then is a spark, which could come from a power line failure, a cigarette, or a firecracker.”

“The second factor making the state more fire-prone is poor forest management.

“And in the early 2000s, park rangers practiced a certain form of forestry management — prescribed burns, clearing brush, remediating clear cuts. But it fell out of favor as an increasingly large, paramilitary fire brigade took over. “As rangers joined up with the ranks of better-paid firefighters,” Arax writes, “their numbers dwindled to maybe 250, even as the number of firefighters inside the [Department of Forestry and Fire Protection] jumped to 7,000.”

Firefighters put out fires; they don’t do prescribed burns. But consistent fire suppression only increases the amount of dry, flammable material.”

“California also has a housing crisis, born largely of the fact that wealthier urban residents refuse to allow more housing to be built in urban areas, near jobs. Consequently, as more residents stream into the state, the price of existing urban housing stock rises and development sprawls outward. More and more of that development is being pushed into the “wildland-urban interface” (WUI), where wildfires are more frequent and more difficult to fight.”

“Add all this together — increasing heat from global warming, several years of unusually high winds and low humidity, poor logging practices with fewer preventive burns, more people living on forested ridges and hills in remote, fire-prone areas — and the result is disaster.”

“Unprecedented”: What’s behind the California, Oregon, and Washington wildfires

“With so many fires burning across a wide region, it’s important to remember that there is a lot of variability in the specific factors at play for a given fire, from the ignition source to what kind of landscape is burning to the local conditions spreading the flames. However, there are some common factors that tie many of these blazes together and make them exceptional.”

“Record heat this summer baked much of the western United States, with states like California experiencing their hottest August on record. Many cities and counties across the West experienced record or near-record heat throughout the summer and into September. The summer was capped with a punishing heat wave that settled across the region in August and September and drove temperatures well into triple digits.

It has also been extremely dry in California, Oregon, and Washington this summer, with large sections of each state under “severe drought” conditions and some areas reaching “extreme drought.”

That heat and dryness turned grasses, shrubs, and trees into easy tinder, ready to ignite at the slightest spark.”

“The vast majority of wildfires in the United States are ignited by human sources — power lines, cigarette butts, machinery, or, in the case of one infamous recent fire, a gender reveal stunt. But a strange dry lightning storm near the San Francisco Bay Area in August led to more than 11,000 lightning strikes and triggered more than 300 fires in its wake. The causes of many other fires across the region are still being investigated.

The record-breaking weather comports with what scientists expect as the climate changes, and in many of the burning areas, the climate has already shifted in ways to worsen fire risk.”