Unholy wood: how to deal with catastrophic wildfires


First Australia, in the first months of the year, now the western parts of the United States. Australian wildfires ravaged the forested area equal in size to the state of Kentucky, destroying thousands of buildings and killing nearly 30 people.  Now apocalyptic images from California, Washington and Oregon of uncontrollable infernos and sunless orange skies are flashing across our screens, eliciting talk of angry Mother Earth (Nancy Pelosi) and “existential climate CRISIS” (Gavin Newsom).

Whatever your position on climate change – majority of experts believe that higher temperatures and drier conditions exacerbate wildfires, both in Australia and America –  there is no immediate solution to be found on the global level. If you agree that man-made emissions are driving up temperatures, there is no course of action that will in any substantial way change the climatic conditions for the better over the next few decades (the most ambitious climate change plans talk in terms of slowing down temperature increases, not reversing the trend). Shut down the whole industrial civilisation tomorrow, and the present climate would still lag behind. Talking about wildfires and climate change (as Pelosi, Newsom and many others do) might be a good propaganda for climate action, but it will do nothing for this or any future fiery disasters.

Fortunately, there are much more immediate factors and solutions than shutting down coal and transitioning to renewable energy (themselves decades-long projects). Wildfires are almost exclusively man-made calamities, but not in the way the climate change activists think. Changing climate might indeed be making fires more difficult to contain and extinguish, but it neither starts nor fuels them. We do. Herein, therefore, lie the opportunities to mitigate such disasters as we are witnessing at the moment.

Almost all fires are started by humans

Forests don’t spontaneously combust. And while lightning can often set trees on fire, this accounts for only a very small proportion of all fires.

In Australia, it has been estimated that 87 per cent of 113,000 fires that occurred “in nature” between 1997 and 2009 have been man-made.

In the United States, the latest study from the University of Colorado at Boulder calculates that 97 per cent of fires between 1992 and 2015 that threatened homes (i.e. those happening in the so called “wildland-urban interface”) were started by humans (as were 85 per cent of all fires in “very-low-density housing” areas and 59% of all wildfires in the wild).

A word of caution: man-made does not automatically mean intentional. The scenarios range from broken glass acting as lenses for sun rays or sparks from power lines and machinery, through carelessly discarded cigarette butts and incompletely extinguished bonfires, to amateur back burn attempts getting out of control and – yes – deliberate arson.

During the Australian bushfire crises, I have compiled media reports of around 200 individuals who have been arrested and/or charged in connection with starting fires – many, though not all, on purpose.

In the United States, the cases of arsonists caught by the authorities are mounting, though nowhere near the Australian numbers yet. In Portland, a man was arrested for starting a fire, released, and started another six fires –  at this rate, the US might quickly catch up to Down Under.

What are the policy implications? Human behaviour, whether negligent or intentional, is not easy to control. Certainly education needs to continue to impart on people the importance of fire safety. For those who set fire on purpose, perhaps harsher and more public penalties are in order. More work certainly needs to be done to profile arsonists and find effective ways of intervention.  Humans accounting for the overwhelming majority of fires, unless we find better ways of stopping people being stupid or malicious, we won’t decrease the numbers of fires.

Government policies have turned forests into tinderboxes

We not only set the fires, but once they start, our policies often turn what would have been relatively minor conflagrations into raging infernos. I’m talking here about all sorts of environmental laws and regulations that over decades have prevented the reduction of “fuel loads” by restricting undergrowth clearance, removal of dead trees, and the frequency of controlled back burning. All has been done with the pious intentions of “preserving the environment”, but results in massive destruction of the very forests that are being supposedly protected.

In both Australia and the United States, the native peoples have for millennia managed the back-burning process very well, with periodic controlled fires removing the excessive undergrowth and so ensuring that all-consuming megafires don’t happen. For all the environmental movement’s infatuation with the ideas like “the first peoples’ stewardship of the land” or the the Edenic quality of pre-first contact “new” worlds, the greens seem to have forgotten this very important fire-management lesson. As Valerie Trouet, professor of dendrochronology at the University of Arizona writes in “The Guardian” (of all places):

Every five to 15 years, groundfires would burn through the forest, killing off the undergrowth on a regular basis, thus removing the material that can act as tinder and kindle fires. Such groundfires were sparked by lightning or by indigenous people who used sophisticated burning practices to facilitate crop growing and hunting. Because the fires occurred frequently, the understory rarely had time to build up enough combustible material for the fires to reach the canopies of the mature trees – which is what causes the large, devastating fires we are seeing now. As a result, overstory trees might get wounded by the groundfires, but they would rarely get killed.

We know this, because we can still find the scars left by past groundfires in century-old Sierra Nevada trees and in stumps of trees that were cut in the late 19th century during the Gold and Silver Rush. Through dendrochronology, or tree-ring analysis, we can date these fire scars to the exact year. In Dog Valley, near Truckee in California, for instance, I found the remainder of a tree that had been cut in 1854 and that had survived and recorded no less than 33 fires over its 300-year life span. A fire about every 10 years, indeed. By their mere existence, such fire-scarred trees and stumps are witnesses of the non-destructive character of past forest fires on the American west coast.

As part of a project to study California’s fire history, we sampled almost 2,000 fire-scarred trees and stumps in the Sierra Nevada. What was equally arresting as finding 10 or more scars in a single tree, however, is what we did not find. Of the hundreds of living trees we sampled, only a handful had even a single fire scar in the 20th century. Centuries of frequent groundfires and fire scars ended abruptly in 1905, when Theodore Roosevelt established the US Forest Service and charged it with protecting and managing our national forests.

The 20th-century concept of forest protection embraced large-scale suppression of fires, including the harmless groundfires, the “good fires”, that played an integral role in Californian forest ecosystems. Fire suppression has been very effective over the past century in the American west, resulting in a disturbing lack of fire scars and an alarming buildup of combustible understory material, of kindling.

As Bjorn Lomborg points out in “New York Post”, “according to one estimate, there is now five times more wood-fuel debris in Californian forests than before Europeans arrived.” Sure, higher temperatures and drier conditions can contribute to the intensity of fires, as Newsom and others argue, but it’s nothing compared to the contribution of the vast stocks of dried dead organic matter piling up on the forest floor. If you excuse a rather graphic illustration, imagine the Inquisition trying to burn a heretic tied to a stake by trying to set fire to the heretic or the stake directly. Instead, of course, they always first surrounded their victims with piles of firewood at the base of the stake. We have been condemning out trees to the same fate.

It’s our choice: frequent controlled small fires that do little damage or much rarer but apocalyptic blazes that wipe out everything. The authorities have effectively chosen the latter as a consequence of their obsession with preserving “pristine” and “untouched” (by humans) forests. As Churchill said about his opponents, they had a choice between war and dishonour; they have chosen dishonour and will have war anyway. No forest is pristine; in your drive to preserve what you think is some ideal vision of unspoiled nature you are likely to end up with no nature at all. Environmental protection authorities are quite literally destroying the forest in order to save it.

And so, governments have created a bureaucratic nightmare:

The regulatory requirements one must meet before starting a controlled burn are complex and lengthy. According to Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation and an adjunct fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center, the National Environmental Policy Act requires “a couple-thousand-page document analyzing every single conceivable impact to the environment that the plan might have.” This is a public process, Wood adds, that “often results in litigation.” There’s even more paperwork when the controlled burn might overlap with areas designated as critical habitat for an endangered species…

From 1999 to 2017, an average of 13,000 acres of California were subjected to controlled burns each year. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published a report arguing that California needs to burn 20 million acres of forest in order to restore forest health.

Not only that, but under the Clean Air Act of 1990, smoke from a controlled burn-off is considered a pollutant, and needs to be analysed to obtain a permission. Coincidentally, it’s exactly the same smoke that is produced – without permission – by the raging infernos like those at the moment, except in a staggeringly larger quantities. Once again, the law-makers and the bureaucrats (if you excuse the pun) fail to see the forest for the trees.

The solutions to fire disasters are not necessarily easy, but they are well-known and, unlike building more solar farms to replace coal-fired power stations, can be applied now to bring immediate results. We all burn, but to be consumed is a choice.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash