Fighting Fire With Fire?

Contributor
School of Medicine

Why is California chronically on fire, and what can we do to help it heal? As counter-intuitive as it sounds, there is a case to be made for fighting fire with fire. Wildfires in California have already burned over 2 million acres this year, an area almost twice as large as the Grand Canyon. The devastating Dixie and Caldor fires from this summer are over 90% contained, though the hot and desiccating offshore winds of autumn have only begun to blow. Rising temperatures, little chances of rain on the horizon, and a tinder-dry landscape driven by climate change has left the Bay Area vulnerable — again. Last year was a historically destructive fire season, and we’re right on track to matching it. 

Fire has always found a natural home in California. But, if it feels like huge wildfires have been constantly blazing in our beloved state in recent years, it’s because they have. Thirteen of the twenty most destructive wildfires in the state’s history occurred in the past 5 years. 

Eight of the ten largest wildfires in the state happened within the past 5 years as well. The average size of wildfires in California is steadily climbing. According to the Historic Fires Database, there’s been a jump from about 3 percent of the state’s land surfaces burning between 1970-1980 to 11% in 2010-2020. 

To understand the ‘why,’ let’s first take a peek at the how. Fire is simple for all its destruction. It only needs three things to get going: a fuel source to burn, oxygen from the air, and a heat source to bring the temperature of fuel up to ignition.  After combustion occurs, several variables determine if and how the fire spreads. Things like weather, topography, and fuel can make all the difference on whether a flame fizzles out or rages into an inferno. Once a fire begins, it can expand and consume everything in its path up to a rate of 14 miles per hour. 

As for the ‘why’, the surge in large, destructive fires has been driven by a perfect storm of factors: an increasing population within areas prone to burning and unusual droughts exacerbated by climate change are among them. One factor that is steadily gaining more awareness is the fire suppression practices of over a century that have caused a build-up of dried brush and dead trees that are all too ready to combust. Our control on wildfires has been slipping — but, as it turns out, our ‘control’ was part of the problem. 

Now, what can we do to help heal it? The answer may be to look at the distant past. In pre-colonial California, millions of acres  burned every year from lightning-caused fires and Indigenous burning practices. But they were not intense infernos, like the Dixie Fire, which hurt surrounding ecosystems.

Indigenous peoples in various parts of the state used low-grade fires in cultural rituals as well as to encourage certain vegetation growth for tribal use. 

Low-grade fires can be vital for certain forests to thrive. Lower intensity flames help clean forest floors of debris and smaller trees while replenishing soil with nutrients for healthier and stronger growth. Sequoias, for one, depend on this cycle. But by the late 1800’s, settlers came and brought with them a tradition of fire suppression. Fuels that were ready to burn decades ago began accumulating. Fires are now burning hotter, larger, and more often. 

And so, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, there is a case to be made for fighting fire with fire. The level of wildfire activity we see nowadays is vastly dwarfed by the pre-colonial numbers. But the kind of fire that burns matters. The infernos we see now are vastly different from the low-intensity burns that California’s landscape had adapted to centuries ago. Studies in pyrodiversity, or the variations of fire regimes, have explored the causes and effects of this phenomenon. In particular, the theory of pyrodiversity begetting biodiversity by creating heterogeneous landscapes with various niches and ecological habitats has gained increasing traction in both academic and conservation efforts, though more work is needed to fully understand fire’s role in biodiversity. The research can’t come any sooner — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently declared the extinction of 23 more species

California’s wildfires have ravaged local wildlife and cost billions in lost homes and infrastructure. The loss of lives, of health, and of communities are incalculable. Much effort is needed to address climate change’s role in these catastrophic burns, and to recognize issues of local and regional safety along the wildland-urban interface where more and more people are building homes. Additionally, much can be learned about “good fires” through past and present scientific research and advocacy work. There are ongoing studies, ongoing policy efforts, and ongoing hope in us navigating through this burning world. 

Finally, we should never forget that the number one cause of wildfires is us. Discarded cigarettes, unattended campfires, and fallen power lines make up some of the most frequent perpetrators.  These flames are unmanaged, unprescribed, and more difficult to contain. You can do your part by being attentive and being safe. Make Smokey the Bear proud. 

You, too, can prevent uncontrolled wildfires.