Q&A: A blueprint for protecting communities and restoring a lower intensity fire regime
California may be headed for another record-breaking wildfire season. Stanford researchers discuss the shift in federal, state and local approaches necessary to turn the tide of destruction.
Wildfire-weary Californians may be wondering whether their state – the world’s fifth largest economy – is destined for an ever-intensifying cycle of destruction. Can ambitious interventions slow the pace of conflagration fed by extreme heat and drought? If so, what would they look like, how much would they cost and where would the money come from?
Field is the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies. He studies climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, with a focus on disaster risk reduction, especially from wildfires.
Wara is the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and a commissioner on California’s Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery Commission. He has testified as a lead witness in California state legislative hearings on wildfire-related bills multiple times this past year, and recently authored “A New Strategy for Addressing the Wildfire Epidemic in California,” a white paper for policymakers that pinpoints needed interventions, such as the creation of a state office focused on fire preparedness and risk reduction and a massive investment in restoring natural forest fire regimes, and the means to achieve them.
What are the most important interventions needed and at what scale?
FIELD: Critical interventions fall into four major categories: upgrading buildings and defensible space around them, reducing vegetation that allows fire to climb into forest canopies, improving emergency planning and resources, and identifying homes or communities where risks are too high to manage. All of these intervention types are critical, and all need to be pursued at scale.
WARA: We need to start with a focus on people and communities: reduce the flammability of existing homes, invest in fuel breaks and similar natural fire-prevention infrastructure around communities, and restore a lower intensity fire regime in California wildlands. Restoring that regime will require dramatic increases in prescribed fire, cultural burning by native tribes and, in some cases, letting wildfires burn where necessary. All of this work needs to be done at a scale sufficient to actually change outcomes, which is why strategic planning and careful targeting of early interventions is so important.
Where might funding come from for these interventions? How much is needed?
WARA: We need the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to be spending $5 billion to $6 billion per year – for 10 years or more – to really have hope of improving outcomes on federal lands in the West. But funding needs to come from all levels of government – federal, state and local. Benefits will flow to locals, the state and the U.S. as a whole, and each of these actors has a unique and important role to play. Early movers in this space include local governments that are investing in fuels management and community protection as well as the state of California. The most critical actor that has really not stepped up to the challenge yet is the U.S. Forest Service. That agency’s chief has acknowledged that hazardous fuel treatments need to double or quadruple in size, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has consistently failed to ask for sufficient resources to scale the hazardous fuels management program. This needs to change urgently for California since the Forest Service owns more than half of the forested land in our state.
How can we return to a low-intensity fire regime where the risk of wildfires is significantly less than it is now?
FIELD: If we want healthy ecosystems with limited risk from devastating wildfire, we need a big uptick in the area annually treated to reduce fuels, probably to a level of about 2 million acres per year. Some of this treatment will be prescribed burns, and some will be mechanical fuel reduction.
What should/can the federal government’s role be in this effort?
WARA: The federal government’s role is absolutely crucial because it owns and manages more than half the forested land in California and even greater percentages in other western states. There is simply no way out of this problem that does not involve a major reorientation of the federal land management strategy away from timber harvest and ranching and toward public safety. Wildfires cost the state of California more than $148 billion in 2018, according to a study led by the University of California, Irvine. That same year, the total income from U.S. federal timber harvesting was a bit less than $250 million. But too often, getting the cut out, or at least some of it, is still the priority for forest units. That needs to change.
How can state and federal policymakers drum up public support for the necessary spending and changes? What are the most significant obstacles?
WARA: The most important change that needs to occur is growth in public understanding of the impacts of wildfire in places that are far from the forest. Federal and state wildfire policies do not just impact people that live in rural areas near forested lands. They impact all of us through toxic wildfire smoke emissions, through the cost of homeowners insurance and through the cost of electricity. And the list goes on. A resident of urban Los Angeles has as much interest in seeing better wildfire management as a resident of rural Placer County. We need to make these connections for all Californians as well as show how with greater investment, we can solve the problem and create lots of good and meaningful jobs in rural communities.
How would failure affect the average person’s life and the state as a whole?
WARA: We depend on the most talented people in the world wanting to come and live in our state. Many of those people are concerned about their own and their family’s health and safety at this point because of wildfire. If we don’t get ahead of this problem, I worry that California will become a little bit like Beijing in terms of air quality – a place that one might work for a few years but not a place to make a home and raise children. I also worry that failure to address the wildfire problem could fundamentally break our real estate market due to a lack of available homeowners insurance. That’s a slowly developing crisis right now, but is primed to get worse, perhaps very quickly, unless major interventions to reduce risks occur.
Field is also a professor of Earth system science and biology, and a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.