Wildfires in California forest lands are increasing in occurrence and intensity. Effects such as smoke inhalation, loss of life, and property damage are becoming intolerable. Whole towns are being destroyed. Suppression costs are astronomical is size. Restoration needs are overwhelming. Consequently, wildfire issues have become the dominant drivers of both forest management and political action in California at both both federal and state levels of government. The situation and needed actions have been well-described in the Little Hoover Report (2018)1. And in 2021 the Governor formed a Forest Management Task Force to advise on actions needed2.
A review of statistics of wildfire in California3 shows just how severe the problem is. In 2022 there were 7,480 wildfires that burned 362,455 acres; 876 structures were lost and 09 fatalities. Suppression costs were $1.3 billion4 and these costs don’t include the overall costs to society that include dealing with siltation of reservoirs and restoration, and urban recovery.
The urgent need to address the wildfire situation in California has spurred action. Both the USDA Forest Service and State of California have allocated substantial funds to address issues of fuels reduction and community fire-safe projects. Importantly, they have committed to increasing forest health and reducing fuels by treating 500,000 acres annually for a total of one million acres per year by 20255. This sounds a lot, but of California’s 100 million acres: shrublands account for 46%, forests 43%, and grasslands 11%6, so the challenge to periodically treat the priority sections of these lands is huge.
Why are public forests so dense?
Increased wildfire occurrence and severity in CA is often associated with federal practices over the past century aimed at suppressing all wildfires as rapidly as possible. It is also related to the marked decline in forest harvesting on national forests starting in the late 1980s. This led to a build up of fuels in overly dense forests. The situation is now being made more severe by climate change that is causing summers to be hotter and drier. Our traditional ‘fire season’ has lengthened to become a year-around concern. And perhaps equally important is the fact that California’s population is now nearly 40 million with about 11 million people living in what is called the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). In contrast, in 1922 the population of California was about 4 million.
This increase in population is important because it is people in our forests, shrublands, and grasslands that cause most fires through the use of equipment, escaped campfires, and even arson. Recent, comprehensive studies7 of over 20,000 fires have shown that most fires (60%) in western United States started on private lands and burned into national forest and industrial forest lands. Only 28% originated on national forests.
Similar research in California in 20218 shows that the majority (64%) of areas burned in wildfires over the last 20 years were initiated in shrublands, hardwood areas and grasslands rather than conifer forests (36%). But once fires move into forest land or chaparral (see Topic 1) they can rapidly spread and become catastrophic in size and intensity due to the abundance of fuel, overly dense conditions, and urban development.
Fire management strategies to prevent or reduce the hazard of wildfire concentrate on the reduction of fuels through mechanical thinning and prescribed burning, which simulates the frequent burning of forests by indigenous peoples. Thinning forests is also aimed at reducing or eliminating ladder fuels that allow ground fires to burn into tree crowns and become fast-moving canopy fires. But forest management needs to occur at much larger scales9.
Forest treatments are expensive, but the costs of thinning and fuel reduction could be offset by the harvesting and sale of thinned trees, trees burned in forest fires, and biomass. But these treatments are hampered by adverse public opinion and the lack of adequate numbers of sawmills and processing plants (see Topic 5). There is also a shortage of trained foresters and equipment operators needed to plan and carry out the treatments (see Topic 2). And utilizing the abundant supply of dead and dying woody biomass in forests for energy production has not been encouraged by subsidies that have been so important in the development of other renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind.
Developing strategies for combating wildfires is thus a combination of economic feasibility, managing forests to make them more resilient and resistant to fire, restoring forest densities to levels similar to historic levels, and developing a better-informed public that supports forest treatments. Fortunately, we now have the political will to begin addressing the problem and progress is being made towards making our forests more fire resilient – but the scale of the problem is daunting.
To ensure that California’s invaluable forests, structures, and lives are not lost through lack of management.
Why burned forests should be promptly salvage-logged and regenerated – for safety, reduce fire risk, and salvage value to society. To prevent land reverting to a brushfield.
Wildfires cause massive returns of carbon to atmosphere.
Rapid increase in WUI millions of homes threatened. And increased fire problem from embers blowing into structures.
Overly dense forests – particularly on national forests.
Statistics on acres burned and suppression costs.
|CA 5-yr average||2020 *|
|Number of fires – 7, 874||7,606|
|Ac. burned – 1,223,831||2,277,922|
|Suppression costs – $590.4 million||$1.3 billion **|
|Structures destroyed – 11,274||3,849|
30 million homes at risk, temperature, air quality
History of thousands of fires and millions of dollars