Why Firefighting Alone Won’t Stop Western Mega-Fires

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Wildfires across the West, such as the Creek Fire here in Madera County, Calif., are pushing firefighters to their limits.

Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images


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Retrofitting homes with fire-resistant materials can improve the chances they survive wildfires. Here, a home is destroyed after the Creek Fire swept through the area near Shaver Lake, Calif.

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Communities have struggled to find funding to clear brush and make neighborhoods more safe from fires. Here, firefighters watch as flames tower over their truck in Oroville, Calif.

Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images


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Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Communities have struggled to find funding to clear brush and make neighborhoods more safe from fires. Here, firefighters watch as flames tower over their truck in Oroville, Calif.

Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Nearly half of the agency’s $5.14 billion budget is still earmarked for fire suppression.

«There’s definitely not enough economic support,» says Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at the University of California, Merced. «How we have always addressed natural hazards as a nation is that we have invested in reducing risk with federal tax dollars because natural hazard reduction is a social good.»

Last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., proposed a bipartisan bill to clear roadblocks for vegetation removal projects. Critics say it would undermine existing environmental protections.

Earlier this year, California announced a new state-federal effort to reduce wildfire risks. The goal is to treat 1 million acres of forest and wildland annually with prescribed fires and forest thinning projects.

Both initiatives address overgrown forests. But fire ecologists say it’s going to take a wider range of solutions to protect communities. What works in one place might not in another.

«What people tend to look for is a single bullet solution,» Kolden says. «And the reality is that fire is complex. All natural hazards are complex. And there is no single silver bullet solution.»

California lawmakers have made several unsuccessful attempts to set aside funding for some other solutions. Earlier this year, $1 billion was canceled for a house retrofit fund due to the state’s pandemic-related budget shortfall. State lawmakers tried last month to pass $3 billion for both emergency fire response and community preparedness, but the legislative session ended.

Without action, the drivers of extreme fire are only going to increase with time. People continue to move into forested areas. The climate continues to warm. And, even with adequate funding, community-based solutions will take decades to implement.

«As bad as it is, it’s going to get worse,» Harbour says. «And it’s going to get worse for another decade or two, even with us adopting some of these mitigations.»

  • California wildfires
  • climate

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