As the wildfires burn up and down the West Coast and the thick smoke finally departs Seattle skies, I plea for unity in our discussion of the causes of these fires — unity as a way to move forward on solutions to the wildfire problem in the West.
As a climate adaptation specialist and fire ecologist who has studied wildland fire for 15 years, I have been asked many questions in the last weeks about why the fires and air quality got so bad this September. Is it that the forests are too dry or that there are too many trees? Is it the winds or careless human mistakes? Is it forest management or climate change? To all these questions I answer yes, yes and yes.
These are tragic times with lives lost, homes destroyed and air so unhealthy we can’t let our children play outside. These are not times to be arguing about the causes when science has clearly established that the answer is “all of the above.” As humans, we want a simpler answer, one explanation, but to have any hope of tackling the problem, we need to recognize all the factors colliding to make the wildfire situation so widespread. If we don’t act now on all of these causes, it will only get worse.
In Washington, our dry east-side forests, wet west-side forests, grasslands and sagebrush ecosystems are all naturally fire-prone. These ecosystems have burned in the past, and they will burn again. But science has shown that we humans are changing the game in several ways.
A legacy of forest management excluding fire from dry forest ecosystems has resulted in too many trees, leading to larger and more severe fires.
Development has rapidly expanded into the wildland-urban interface across the state, increasing the number of ignitions and of people and homes in harm’s way when the wildfires do burn. Some people do not even realize that they live in fire-prone environments, especially in wet west-side forests that haven’t burned in a century. And they might not know how to prepare or how to give their homes a fighting chance when the wildfires burn.
Climate change is increasing temperatures, leading to drier summers and increased aridity across the western U.S. In many forests and grasslands, tinder-dry fuels are ready to burn. So when the red flag warnings go out for impending severe fire weather and ignitions spark, climate change is setting the stage for larger and larger fires.
Science has given us evidence of the causes of the wildfire problem, and now we need to turn to science for insights into the solutions. It’s time to connect our understanding of the relative importance of these causes in different places with our efforts to solve the problem.
We can use science to tailor our solutions and minimize impacts to resources, communities and people. Many good examples are in progress — such as creating Fire Adapted Communities, thinning forests and enhancing emergency plans — but not nearly to the extent that they need to be to prevent the 2020 fire season from becoming the norm. And these actions may matter little if we aren’t also reducing emissions sufficiently to prevent dangerous climate change.
So what I want people to be asking me is: Should we address the wildfire problem by changing forest management or suppressing fires? By building fire-smart communities or preparing for fire emergencies? By adapting to climate change, or reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases that are causing climate change? And my answer would be yes for some forests, yes for some places and undoubtedly yes if we want this situation to stop getting worse in the future.
The east winds that pushed the large fires as temperatures hit record highs for early September will blow again. My question to you is: Next time these winds blow, will we be any more prepared, or will we still be fighting about the causes?