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Experts say cultural, political change needed to stop Western megafires

by Amy Alonzo, Reno Gazette-Journal |

When Tim Brown moved into his south Reno home, one of the first things he noticed was the wood shake roof.

Living in an area where residences border undeveloped forest lands, he and his wife replaced the roof with non-combustible material.

A neighbor, unhappy with the roof's appearance, soon came over to question their decision.

We've never had a fire here, she said. Why change it?

It’s not an uncommon refrain, according to Brown, who serves as director of the Western Regional Climate Center.

Decades of federally-mandated wildfire suppression shaped the West into a tinderbox poised to burn. Yet more and more people continue to move to mountain homes in areas like the Tahoe Basin without taking on the responsibility required to live in such a fire-prone area.

A radical departure in forest management combined with accountability for mountain homeowners is needed to reduce the risk of living in wildfire-prone territory, experts say.

But the U.S. Forest Service admits it is facing a Sisyphean task to catch up with fuel reduction work while more and more people keep flocking to these densely forested areas.

Without a social impetus for change and a reevaluation of forest management, it's a trend that will continue –– and likely get worse –– every year, according to Brown.

“These are all naturally fire-prone areas and now we have people living in these places," he said.

As the Caldor Fire encroached on South Lake Tahoe, threatening to destroy homes and lives in its path, it begged the question: How do we live in this environment?

The answer, according to experts, is a shift in fire policy — not only in federal and state law but in household practices.

Contrary to what seems logical, what's needed is more fire, according to Sarah Bisbing, an assistant professor of ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Prescribed fires and controlled burns are essential to making forests more inhabitable and healthy, she said. But no one wants to hear it.

“Forest and fire ecologists are screaming from the rooftops and nobody is listening," she said. “We need a serious cultural and political change to make this happen. We need to get fire on the ground, and we need the public to be okay with that. It’s part of protecting their houses and it’s part of living in the forest. We just need a major cultural shift to get enough stamina to make that happen.”

>> The 10 a.m. policy and a history of suppression

In 1910, a devastating series of wildfires known as the Big Blowup destroyed 3 million acres across Idaho, Montana and Washington in just two days.

With timber harvesting critical to Western economies, the fires spurred a policy of fire suppression rather than management at the newly formed U.S. Forest Service, the agency tasked with overseeing the nation’s newly-created national forest system.

By 1935, the Forest Service established its 10 a.m. policy – every fire should be suppressed by 10 a.m. the day following its initial report, according to the Forest History Society.

For decades, fires were instantly squashed, until broader understanding of fire science in the 1960s and '70s showed that letting fires burn where appropriate is beneficial to overall forest health.

“We’ve got a lot of dense packed fuels in the Sierra, and a lot of this is because of past management and strategies of suppression,” Brown said. “We’ve had a century of putting fires out before they begin, and this has allowed a lot of fuel build up.”

Now, the Forest Service estimates anywhere from 6-9 million acres in California need treatment such as mechanical thinning or controlled burning to reduce the amount of dry fuel. But the agency estimates it is only treating around 200,000 acres per year in California and that it will take anywhere from 30 to 45 years to catch up.

Meanwhile, roughly 400,000 acres burn in the state each year — and with recent megafires such as the Dixie and August Complex, that number is likely even higher.

But the Forest Service is caught in a cycle where more and more of its resources are devoted to fighting fire than reducing the risk.

In California, the Forest Service spends $200 million per year to suppress 98 percent of fires and $1 billion to suppress the other 2 percent — the state’s catastrophic megafires.

Nationally, the U.S. Forest Service spent 57 percent of the agency’s budget on wildfire-related costs in 2017 –– up from 16 percent in 1995.

And costs are likely to continue rising as more and more people call the forests home.

>> A societal and political will problem

Six of California’s 10 biggest wildfires have burned in the past two years. The two biggest – Dixie and August Complex – destroyed more than 2 million acres alone.

In Plumas County, where the Dixie Fire is burning and the North Complex Fire burned last year, more than two-thirds of the Plumas National Forest's nearly 1.5 million acres have burned in the last three years.

Yet millions of Californians still choose to make forested areas their home.

More than a quarter of the state’s population – 11 million people – live in areas that border or intermingle with forested areas, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Urbanism.

Known as the wildland urban interface, it is the fastest growing land use type in the continental United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of people living in more forested, harder-to-access areas increased 41 percent to 43.4 million. The expansion poses challenges for wildfire management, according to the department, as more buildings are constructed in areas at risk of wildfire where firefighting is difficult.

In 2010, before many of the most destructive wildfires plagued the West, 286,000 houses nationally were within the perimeter of wildfire scars. The USDA in 2018 predicted that wildfire problems will not abate if housing growth trends continue.

The problem, in part, is that not everyone who lives in these areas have hardened their homes or created a defensible space around their properties, something that is critical for living in the wildland.

And local and state governments and fire districts could stand to be tougher on the issue, Brown said.

“The fire problem today is not so much a science or technical problem,” he said. “Really, what we are talking about is a societal and political will problem. Why doesn’t a city or county establish building ordinances or codes to mitigate damage?”

The Southern California community of Rancho Santa Fe did just that.

In response to district building codes, Rancho Santa Fe hardened homes. Roofs were switched from wood shake to non-combustible material. Sprinklers were required. Defensible spaces were cleared.

In 2007, when the devastating Witch Fire blew up against row after row of hardened houses, the measures worked. The fire did not advance.

But Brown doesn't see other communities embracing the policies that saved Rancho Santa Fe.

>> For some, wildfire defense isn't a priority

Until this year, California home buyers and sellers weren't required to document that properties in a high or very high fire hazard severity zone — such as South Lake Tahoe — complied with CAL FIRE-approved wildfire protection measures.

In the Tahoe Basin's El Dorado and Placer counties, property owners can request free inspections to see if their properties meet defensible space criteria. But the onus falls on property owners to take initiative, and for some homeowners, renters and second-home owners, wildfire defense isn't a priority.

During at least one Caldor Fire briefing, officials said crews were busy removing wood piles from porches and creating defensible spaces around properties, some of the most basic acts homeowners living in the wildland are expected to perform.

Part of the problem could be part-time residents.

According to the Tahoe Prosperity Center, anywhere from half to two-thirds of houses in the Basin are vacation homes. Having a high density of seasonal homes complicates management of the wildland urban interface because many second home owners and seasonal residents don't spend their limited time prepping their home for wildfires, according to a report from the United States Department of Agriculture.

“People need to understand most of the West is a fire-prone area,” Brown said. “People need to be more aware and think about what they can do to help make their property or community more resilient. It’s really adapting to this environment.”

'It took 100 years to get here'

Nevadans have been eager to pin blame on California’s forestry management practices, while Golden Staters have focused on the kindling-creating effects of climate change.

This tension has lead to debates over the cause of California’s conflagrations almost as heated as the fires themselves.

John Christopherson, deputy administrator at the Nevada Division of Forestry, noted at a recent Caldor Fire press briefing that Nevada has cleared 31,000 acres of flammable fuels from the Tahoe Basin over the past two decades.

He didn’t know, however, how many acres his counterparts in California chopped down over the same time period. Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit officials did not reply to an email and phone call from the RGJ.

But the LTBMU recently commenced a 10-year, $8.47 million project to reduce fuel within the Tahoe Basin’s WUI area, with an emphasis on urban forest parcels.

During an early September Caldor Fire community meeting, Incident Commander Rocky Opliger, who is overseeing the Tahoe side of the fire, noted the effectiveness of previous fuel treatments in the areas.
The remnants of a home leveled by the Caldor Fire lay in front of a home that remains standing in Grizzly Flats, Calif., on Wednesday Aug.18, 2021.

Flames were reaching heights of 150 feet until they hit the treated area. When the fire reached the thinned forests, dropped to about 15 feet tall, engines and crews were able to get into the area to prevent any structure loss.

But every state in the West has a lot of catching up to do on that front, largely thanks to decades of overly aggressive wildfire suppression tactics that didn’t allow fire to play its natural role in culling forest undergrowth, according to Christopherson.

Meanwhile, worsening droughts and record-breaking heat have made those blazes a lot more destructive than they used to be.

“It took us 100 years to get here, and it’ll take 100 years to get out,” Christopherson added. “If we have the gumption and resolve to work toward it.”