Right now, the Rey fire is burning in Santa Barbara county. It’s the second large fire in Santa Barbara recently, and it’s currently burned over 30k acres. Not surprisingly, these fires seem to have reignited the debate over whether these natural disasters are good or bad and what they tell us about the state of our surrounding environment. While the dangers associated with their occurrences is rarely debated, how to manage burns and mitigate the risks they pose to our communities always seems to be a topic of conversation during the summer months in Southern California.
In 2015, there were 8,745 fires in California alone, which burned 893,362 acres. This represents a massive increase over the year prior, which saw just 7,685 fires and 555,044 acres burned (source). Why the increase? Recent studies suggest the increase in fires in California is a result of human-induced climate change, and that the trend is not likely to be reversed anytime soon.
The average fire in the 2000s was double the size and burned twice as long as that of the 1990s. This is thought to be the result of 3 things that make certain regions more vulnerable: 1) higher temperatures, 2) less precipitation, and 3) more fuel. Higher temperatures and less precipitation are fairly self explanatory, but what’s this about more fuel?
As people have started building homes and inhabiting areas with high fire risk, the practice of aggressively preventing fires has become more and more common. Fire prevention, however, has the unintended consequences of actually creating more fuel for future fires that are unpreventable. Overtime, this practice of fire prevention reduces the frequency of fire occurrences, but when the fires do occur, they will typically be bigger, longer-lasting, and more destructive. Moving into high-fire-risk areas and pushing for fire prevention is a classic example of the human vs. environment standoff–certain people advocating changes for their immediate benefit without considering the long-term ecological impacts of those decisions.
It’s important to note that wildfires are a natural and necessary component of many ecosystems. Apart from reducing the amount of fuel available for future fires, letting wildfires burn naturally (smaller and more regularly) has many positive environmental benefits, which include the regeneration of forests, revitalization of watersheds, and renewal of top soil. Lodgepole pines, for example, require fires to reproduce because they only produce seeds following major fire events. During wildfires, nutrients are recycled into the watershed and soil which provides food for fish and plants.
So what’s the answer? As climate change continues to make certain regions hotter and dryer, the increase in fire risk is inevitable. Even though many of us would love for our backyards to be adjacent to national forests, we should fight this desire and seek out areas less prone to natural fires. By keeping homes and structures out of high-fire-risk areas, officials will be given more flexibility in allowing forests to burn on their natural cadence without posing significant risk to our communities.