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Grappling with the Statewide “Wildfire Siege”

Henry McCann August 20, 2020
photo - Smoke from Butts Fire in Napa Valley, California

California is in the midst of a wildfire siege: multiple fires burning simultaneously over large geographic areas that are severely challenging fire suppression resources. There are currently dozens of major wildfires across the state—several of which are large complexes made up of many smaller blazes. Fires are burning in the outskirts of the Los Angeles metropolitan region and the remote and rugged Trinity Alps Wilderness in Northern California, and many areas in between. Affected regions include the Central Coast, greater Bay Area, Sierra Nevada, and Northern Coast Range. The variety of landscape types under siege—from rugged wilderness areas to rural communities and suburban areas—complicates the firefighting picture. Most of these fires ignited in the last few days.

The fire siege is the result of a confluence of factors. Drought conditions throughout the state this year dried out vegetation, increasing the risk of ignition and fire spread. The recent heatwave and rare, extensive lightning storm set a match to the kindling. The current siege appears to be distributed over a wider area than previous fire sieges, including the 2008 Northern California siege.

“This year’s lightning ignitions were centered around more populated areas such as the Bay Area and Napa/Sonoma counties,” said Scott Stephens, a fire scientist at the University of California, Berkeley and a member of the PPIC Water Policy Center research network. “This has produced more challenges in the wildland urban interface and more potential for structure losses.”

In the near term, the priority is suppressing fires and getting people out of harm’s way. Large fire sieges can be a challenge for firefighting authorities, which must spread firefighting resources over large areas and many fires. Cal Fire—the state’s principal firefighting agency—plans for large fire sieges every year. Even so, the current emergency is stretching fire suppression resources thin. The agency recently requested 375 engines and additional hand crews from out of state, according to Cal Fire spokesperson Christine McMorrow.

The good news is that the state anticipated a severe wildfire season this year. In January, Governor Newsom proposed boosting the state’s permanent firefighting force to allow for relief staffing and enhanced surge capacity. In response to the pandemic, the governor declared wildfire response as one of three top priorities for spending. Despite cuts to other state programs during this period, Cal Fire received $86 million in additional funds to boost the number of firefighters.

In the longer term, climate change is expected to drive increased wildfire activity across the state. In addition to wildfire suppression, public and private entities must also prioritize proactive efforts to reduce wildfire risk and avoid the loss of life, damage to property, and health impacts from wide-ranging smoke pollution. In communities adjacent to wildland areas, this requires investments in emergency planning and fire prevention, along with localized fuel treatments to slow the spread of fire. In the state’s overgrown headwater forests, collaborative landscape-scale efforts to thin forests and protect larger fire-resistant trees are needed.

Fire is a part of California’s history and future. As such, the state has developed one of the most sophisticated and well-resourced fire suppression agencies in the world. Cal Fire is well prepared to respond to current and future fires. Proactive planning and preventive measures such as vegetation management are key to adapting to a warming future that promises to bring more—and more extreme—wildfires. All of these efforts require reliable funding streams that address on-going needs. As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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