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Living With Wildfires

Can California rebuild with a better plan for the fires that will come again?

The 2017 Northern California wildfires, which have damaged or destroyed over 8,000 homes and buildings, scorched more than 200,000 acres, displaced 100,000 and killed at least 42 people, are, as Governor Jerry Brown put it: “one of the greatest tragedies California has ever faced.”

burned down development in santa rosaPhoto by tonynetone/FlickrGiven that increasing number of homes are being built right next to wilderness areas, it’s not surprising that the October wildfires in northern California quickly turned into an urban conflagration that burned down entire suburban subdivisions.

The scale of this human tragedy is unprecedented but not inexplicable given the increasing number of homes that are being built next to wilderness areas. California is the third-largest state in the country but it’s also heavily populated. Many homes here are situated at what’s called the “wildland-urban interface” — areas where natural landscapes and manmade structure meet, making it easy for wildfires to spread into suburban and ex-urban communities.

What’s more, our changing weather patterns are likely to make such fires more frequent. As Climatewire reported, global warming will make vegetation drier, increase the chance of lightning strikes, extend the warmer seasons and even intensify winds such as the Diablo winds — the dry, nearly hurricane-force winds (also called Santa Ana and Sundowner) that blow from the interior towards the California Bay Area coast during fall. All of these are triggers for wildfires, which have long been a natural part of the California landscape.  

Now, with massive re-construction looming after devastating losses, can California re-build with a better plan for the fires that will come again?

Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist who specializes in wildfires in the American West is clear in his response: It's an enormous mistake to simply rebuild without real introspection. "We have always had fires, even big fires," says Hanson, who is also the director of Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project.  "These ecosystems need fire, and we have a lot of people living in areas where fires must occur."

In other words, there's a reason that fire is one of nature’s key elements. To accept fire's necessary role in the ecosystem, it has to be thought of as necessary as wind or rain.  That's not to say that immense fires should be allowed to run rampant; rather, Hanson proposes three key steps to help prevent the massive infrastructure destruction of the recent Northern California fires: create a defensible space around homes, make homes more fire-safe, and have a clear evacuation plan in place. These three steps can make living with fire a real possibility, according to Hanson.

"If there’s a silver lining to the devastation caused by these fires," wrote native-California author and environmentalist Rebecca Solnit in The New Yorker, "it’s that the rebuilding effort in California will provide an opportunity for citizens to decide together what they want their revamped towns and cities to be. There will be the chance to create new homes that are adapted to the challenges of climate change, with solar systems and energy-efficient design, as well as fire-resistant materials."

Fire-resistant homes not only protect massive infrastructure investments but the health of the whole ecosystem, as well. One caustic byproduct of fires that burn not just natural flora and fauna, but also infrastructure materials from homes and other buildings, including rubber, metal, plastic, and hazardous materials like pesticides and paint, is toxic ash. This contaminated ash, that blows around in the air and washes into local creeks and watersheds during rains, impacts both humans and wildlife. The recent fires have left entire neighborhoods coated with thick layers of this kind of ash.

“This is still very much an emergency situation and a human crisis at this point,” Peter Tira, Information Officer at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Journal. “But once it’s safe we will have biologists move in to see how the rivers have been impacted by all this toxic ash, especially on the north coast watersheds that are so important for endangered Coho and threatened steelhead."

Luckily, much of the area where the fire occurred were not adjacent to heavily populated communities, and in those areas the non-toxic ash produced by fires can actually be beneficial for native fish and riverine critters.  “The initial pulse of sediment from fires actually enhance aquatic insect populations, which increases native fish populations by about two or three years post-fire, and also creates sand or gravel beds that improve spawning habitat,” Hanson says.

Though most flora and fauna have survived human waste and destruction before, the October fires present wildlife short-term challenges for survival. "We can assist and support surviving fauna by leaving out water bowls, and by maintaining some standing dead trees — provided they don't pose a threat to life and property — for cavity-dwelling birds," says Doug Wildman, deputy executive director of the conservation group Friends of the Urban Forest

And advocates of “wildlife corridors” such as Bill “Fox Guy” Leikam, cofounder of the Urban Wildlife Research Project, warn that these big fires may create more contact — wanted and unwanted — between humanity and the rest of the natural world.

"These animals will go to extremes to find cover, food, and places to rear young," says Leikam. When fires alter their usual paths and shelters, these animals will move to find other avenues and linkages, especially the linkages that head towards food. In the case of foxes, Leikam's specialty, if their diet of squirrels has been disrupted by fire, they will look for other sources of food, possibly among human habitations.

As devastating as this fire was, the opportunity to learn is just as tremendous. If we decide to rebuild in the same manner, without considering the entire ecosystem, we are not just endangering ourselves but the entire planet. The key will be accepting that fires will come our way and learn how to live with that inevitability, which may include preventing building within fire plains, much like preventing building in floodplains. (To learn more about the ecology of wildland fires in the West, read “War Against Wildfires.”)

"We are in the twenty-first century [yet] laboring in the inertia of the mythological notion that we can stop fires, " Hanson says. "It's just not possible to stop a weather-driven fire, yet most of our money is spent trying to prevent weather-driven fires."

The truth is that we are dealing with a natural ecosystem that has had billions of years to develop. Trying to completely re-design such a system to meet only the needs of humanity does not seem to be working. "The science has shown that the overall ecological benefits of fires are incredibly positive," Hanson says.  "If we follow the current science, it will be good for ecosystems and good for people."

Tom Molanphy
Tom Molanphy is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and Daly City resident.

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