It’s not just California forests: what’s your local fire story?

California is burning. It’s been burning for months–millennia, really–but if you’re a person in this country who pays moderate attention to the national news, you likely know that California has been burning an awful lot these past several weeks. In July, the Rocky Fire first hit national headlines when it burned about 70,000 acres in rural Lake County. The Rough Fire, now at about 150,000 acres, has burned through large sections of Kings Canyon National Park (though most of the acreage is on National Forest land); the Butte Fire covered about 70,000 acres further north in the Sierra. Finally, the Valley Fire of Lake, Napa, and Sonoma Counties burned over 75,000 acres. The Valley Fire, close to population centers and wine country, did by far the most damage in terms of loss of life and structures despite burning similar or lesser area than the other fires. And these are just a few of the more well-known fires.

But if you’ve been paying attention, you already know this–that California has been having the worst fire season in many years, if not the names and acreage of each fire. Looking at the New York Times archive (i.e., a paper that is based clear on the other side of the country), I count 11 articles about California wildfires in September alone. That’s 2-3 a week, and that doesn’t include anything from the A.P. or Reuters. Since the Valley Fire was front-and-center in September, many of these are disaster oriented and single-event focused–homes lost, animals rescued, area contained, and so on. But that’s not all–many articles discuss the bigger picture: how this fire season compares to previous ones, the effects of smoke and ash, links to drought, heat, and climate change, home insurance policies in fire prone areas. Most articles are in the U.S. section of the paper, but there was also a great feature article in the Science section last week.

But that’s just California. Now, I love California. I live here, and it’s pretty great. And California does have a huge population, a huge economy, spectacular mountains and forests and coasts, and lots of valuable infrastructure. But consider this: as of September 2 (I have not yet found a more up to date figure), over 8 million acres have burned in the United States this year. How much of that is in California? The NYT coverage might have you think it’s a lot, but CALFIRE reports a figure of only about 300,000 acres. The vast majority of area burned has been in Alaska–about 5 million acres, mostly earlier in the summer. Despite its low population numbers, fire in Alaska is hugely significant–the tundra and boreal regions are highly sensitive to climate change, and huge amounts of carbon are stored there. Blackened tundra absorbs more heat, leading to positive feedbacks that can exacerbate warming. Here’s a good summary, though it’s a few years old.

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center provided this map of Alaska wildfires in June.

I talk to a lot of people about wildfire these days–I tell them what I study, and I get a lot of questions. These conversations often reflect the NYT news coverage. One common first question is “So, like forest fires?” And I say, well, sort of, but I’m mostly working on shrublands. Another line: “Like how fire is actually natural and good for the plants?” Again: well, sort of. I do study plants that regenerate well after fire and often rely on fire for germination. But in most of the places I study, over 90% of fires are human caused. Most ignitions are not natural in Southern California. Most recently, I’ve talked to people about the huge area burned this year. But I’ve met very few people who had any idea that Alaska was on fire at all. Many were surprised that Alaska could even burn.

It’s great when media coverage of wildfires discusses the science, or the bigger picture beyond destruction and incident management. We need to be talking about why fires are the size and intensity they are, and we need to discuss the best ways to manage fire. But much of the coverage presents fire as a thing that is more or less the same everywhere. It’s mostly California, and when the subject is management or science, it’s often forests with a fire deficit, where suppression has been highly effective over the past century. We hear about California forests and the consequences of highly effective fire suppression over and over–and this isn’t really a bad thing. There’s plenty of evidence that suppression has changed forest densities and fire intensities in Sierra forests and elsewhere. It’s an interesting, dramatic story, with lots of players, and–some actual solutions. It’s not a particularly new story for fire scientists, but some of the public is hearing it for the first or second time. This story is an important one, because it forces us to reconsider the way we manage fires, in California mixed-conifer forests and elsewhere. But it’s only one fire story, and we can’t rely on this story when we think about fire in the United States.

The story with Southern California fires, and most shrubland fires, is different. Most fires are human caused. Suppression has not excluded fire effectively. There are more fires burning now than historically, not fewer. Santa Ana winds play a big role.

These two places are not the same: chaparral fire at Mt. Diablo State Park

These two places are not the same: chaparral fire at Mt. Diablo State Park

These two places are not the same: forest fire in Stanislaus National Forest.

These two places are not the same: forest fire in Stanislaus National Forest.

The story with Pacific Northwest wet forests is different, as is the story of the infamous Yellowstone Fires of 1988. The fire interval in these forests is about ten times longer than that of the Mediterranean Sierra forests.

The story with Alaska, as noted above, is different, too. So are the fire stories in the pines of the southeast, the grasslands of the midwest, the northeastern deciduous forests, the scrub in the southwest. The way to manage fire on these landscapes is to first understand that fire isn’t just about forests, and it’s not just about California. Fire is like rain–it occurs nearly everywhere, in greater or lesser amounts. Sometimes there is a thunderstorm, other times there are hurricanes. So some places build houses on stilts, while others build reservoirs and desalination plants. Fire is part of landscapes all across the country, and there are as many fire stories as there are ecosystems. Fire stories involve plants and weather patterns but also indigenous burning, colonization, environmentalism, and houses.

Can the general public handle this complexity? Should we expect them to know all of these stories?

I don’t think people should learn how fire works everywhere, but I do think they ought to understand that it is different everywhere. People can start by understanding the complexity of fire by studying their home system. Those of us who work in science outreach and education often talk about “sense of place”–how understanding the your local environment makes you more interested in conserving those spaces. A fire story (or “sense-of-fireplace,” if that’s not too terrible a pun for you) is one aspect of “sense of place.”

I work on fire in CA now, but I started in upstate NY (yes, there are fires there!). When I returned to Chicago, where I attended college, I learned that prescribed burns were going on all over the Chicagoland area, that fire had been part of the prairie that once dominated the area, and later, that the Chicago Botanic Garden conducted burns on their property. I hail from New Jersey, home to the Pine Barrens, but I didn’t think about fire in this system until I read an early paper in my research area focused on that region.

A recent fire in the Shawangunks of New York state, not far from my first fire ecology gig in college. From Woodstock Fire Department.

Give something a try for me: research your own fire story–what is the fire history of the places you’ve lived, played, and worked? Your home state? Your cousins’ home state? The place where you did fieldwork? That place you went camping one time? If you live in a place where fires are common, and commonly discussed, try learning about a different place. Start by googling the name of your region or local vegetation type (e.g. “fire in the southeast” or “grassland fire.” You don’t need the full story of every place, but here are some questions to get you started:

  1. How often do fires burn in your place? How often did they burn in pre-colonial times? Before people lived there at all?
  2. What kinds of fires are there? Big or small? Killing all of the trees or just undergrowth? Have they changed over time? Are they caused by lightning or people (intentional or unintentional)?
  3. How do the fires in your system affect plants, animals, and people? Are there plants that have fire-adaptive traits? Are there a lot of homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI)? Are there local fire safe councils?

If you like, share your “fire story”–whether you already knew it or just learned it, in the comments.


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