The Forest from the Trees: Misconceived conceptions on California’s Wildfire Epidemic

With 31 Americans dead and over 200,000 acres burnt after fires that spread at a rate of 80 football fields a minute ravaged California, the President turned to Twitter to share his take.

There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018

With families fleeing, and the video of one father singing to his three year old daughter to keep her calm while he steered their car through seemingly proverbial Hell painting a particular and personal portrait of the pain facing citizens, Trump’s tweet brought attention to the state’s history of land-use and development.

As to what exactly Trump was referring, it’s hard to say. But, based on the language of his statement, the President seemed to think that the fires raging in California were caused by a failure of the state and local governments. If there truly was “no reason for these…fires in California except that forest management is so poor” than it seems whoever is in charge of managing these forests has blood on their hands. Trump doubled down on his stance a day later, even after the Twitter firestorm his Tweet created.

With proper Forest Management, we can stop the devastation constantly going on in California. Get Smart!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2018

But as a point of fact, the United States Federal Government is responsible for the management of half of all California’s forest land —  but even so, these fires weren’t in the forest.  These fires had nothing to do with forest management. This perspective fails to see the forest from the trees while citizens die and firefighters risk their lives, yet again – including prisoners (some of them under the age of 18) who work for $1 an hour.

As the Pasadena Firefighter’s Association pointed out the fires in question have nothing to do with California’s forests, and even less to do with forest management.

Mr. President, with all due respect, you are wrong. The fires in So. Cal are urban interface fires and have NOTHING to do with forest management. Come to SoCal and learn the facts & help the victims. Scott Austin, Pres IAFF 809. @IAFFNewsDesk— Pasadena Fire Assn. (@PFA809) November 10, 2018

As Mr. Austin was quick to point out, these fires are a result of the continued and unchecked development in wildland – urban interface areas. Building in these areas occurs in two separate and distinct veins:  As pointed out here before, sometimes taxpayers in effect subsidize developments in high-risk fire areas in favor of enriching developers and accommodating wealthy homeowners with money to burn who are seeking the palatial McMansion of their dreams; but also too, and as in the case of Paradise, California, or Redding, development in these areas occurs when working and middle-class citizens flee the high cost of California’s coasts and cities for affordable homes and cheaper land. You can’t blame them. As politicians fail to accommodate the increasing size of the population while giving in to self-interested NIMBY activists, this is what happens. At some point, someone is going to speak truth to power, show a little back bone, put principle over party, and have courage. 

The solution to the housing crunch that pushes middle-class Californians outward can only be solved by building upward. Higher-density housing – like it, or not – is as much a part of the future as are wildfires. That’s why the defeat of SB 827 was so frustrating. In a warming climate, where carbon levels continuing to rise, we have to build vertically. That means more public transit. That means high-speed rail. That means building the kind of cycling infrastructure that makes sense for places like Los Angeles: a city that’s largely flat and that possesses both excellent weather and a culture that (at least in theory!) cherishes the environment and a healthy lifestyle. To quote Queen, we need to “Get on our bikes and ride.” But that requires investment in protected bike and bus lanes, and pivoting away from ever-expanding highways, which, as studies show, only make traffic worse. 

California is a fire-dependent ecosystem. We need fires to thin the forest canopy and cultivate the forest floor. And some species of plants only germinate when exposed to the heat of a wildfire. The term is Pyrophytic, from the Greek: fire (pyros) and plant (phytos). They are fire-activated seeds. Much of California is defined by Chaparral, which includes scrub oak, chamise, and manzanita. After a fire, their seeds are activated and released after waiting dormant in anticipation of the next natural wildfire. Coniferous trees require the heat that wildfires bring in order for their seed cones to open. Our plants and animals adapted to California’s seasonal wildfires. Why haven’t we?

We ought to understand our ecosystem and respond accordingly rather than fight against it. But by pushing more and more into what Mr. Austin pointed out was a wildland – urban interface area, we put our communities, and our lives at risk (not to mention our pocket books). 

And it’s only getting worse. US wildfire seasons—especially those in years with higher wildfire potential—are projected to lengthen, with the Southwest’s season of fire potential lengthening from seven months to all year long.

As California’s cities and towns spread out horizontally – rather than more efficiently and vertically – and as they continue to increase our dependence on cars for transportation – and the costly roads to transport them from the ‘burbs into work centers (again, at the expense of tax payers)  – we thumb our nose at nature, we invite catastrophe, and we fail to understand the basic underlying ecology of the state. 

Wildfires aren’t going anywhere. Nature has spoken. Whether we listen or not is up to us.