It seems like every time I look in the news there is a wildfire eating away California. The latest Valley Fire is considered the most destructive of several in the state, 67,000 acres more than twice the land area of the city of San Francisco. With 13,000 people displaced and 585 homes destroyed and as of Tuesday was only 15% contained.
Unlike natural wildfires those in southern California are almost always started by people. Unlike remote parts of the world where natural events like lightning strikes are prime sources of wildfires, in southern California, such fires are almost always started by people. Ninety-five percent have a human cause, according to Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency. Not only are most fires caused by humans but “the probability of fires is increasing because people are increasing,” said the U.S. Geological Survey’s Jon Keeley, who has spent years studying the history of California wildfires.
So what is causing all of these forest fires? Most are caused by humans, who do things like target-shoot in dry creek beds or light campfires when they shouldn’t. Careless tree trimmers have allowed trees to fall into power lines. Some fire experts see a silver lining to these dreary statistics: If people are mostly to blame for wildfires, they can do something about it. More compact growth could eliminate the brush in between and cause less fires. Urging people to avoid using power tools during times of high fire danger, extinguish camp fires, and avoid parking cars in tall, dry grass.
One of the most difficult issues to combat in mitigating fires is deciding where people should build homes. Richard Halsey, author of “Fire, Chaparral, and Survival in Southern California,” has watched San Diego area houses built on forested hilltops and in canyons ripe for destruction by a wildfire. A study involving both the U.S. Geological Survey’s Keeley and the Conservation Biology Institute’s Syphard found that “leapfrog” development—in which suburbs continually pop up at the edge of the woods, beyond existing developments often lead to more houses lost to fire in Southern California.
Anyone that has studied Ecology knows that some wildfires are good for ecosystems; when they are a natural process the fire regenerates new brush and gets rid of old dry wood and brush. However, during most of the 20th century the Forest Service stopped all wildfires so know when they do occur they are under the severest conditions, not patches. Once you get whole swatches of blackened forest the landscape undergoes a process called “type conversion” where the native mix of vegetation is burned out and permanently replaced with something else that’s more fire-tolerant. When that happens the mix of plants and animals that lived there changes as well causing the whole Western ecosystem to become different.
The Conservancy and state ecologists sometimes start “controlled” burns to burn off high grass and undergrowth — excess “fuel” that could turn the naturally occurring fires into out-of-control infernos. Or, sometimes they let natural fires burn instead of putting them out right away — that’s a choice that accomplishes the same thing. Over 200 million acres of land are prescribed to undergo this process and until it happens we need to be mindful of our use of power tools, camp fires and cigarettes to prevent the alteration and destruction of ecosystems. Especially as large areas of the South West undergo severe drought we need to be even more mindful of the severe consequences of one lawn mower spark or sloppy campfire.
I was able to camping pretty soon after the Bastrop Forest Fires and see the destruction that wildfire caused. Huge swaths of forest that had once been a lush ecosystem were charred and barren. More than 16,200 acres of semi-rural forests, composed of loblolly pine trees unique to the Central Texas region and deciduous hardwoods, were completely burned in a fire so hot that the baked soil began to repel water. But there is some home when people unite and work to undo the harm that we have collectively caused to nature. I could see thousands of baby trees planted by scores of volunteers working to give mother nature a helping hand and prevent the complete degradation of these beautiful ecosystems. Now that I have seen first hand the destruction a wildfire can cause I try to remain extra aware when there is a burn ban issued in Austin. If we can spread the word and create a society of awareness and mindfulness maybe just maybe we can live in symbiosis with nature.