Wildfires: How Should We Prevent Them from Spiraling Out of Control?
Before the settlement of America, some 1.5 million acres of Californian forest burned every year (Ngu and Chinoy, par. 9). In the latter half of the 20th century, that number was reduced to 57,000 acres annually (Ngu and Chinoy, par. 12), but from 2008 to 2017, roughly 6.9 million acres were set ablaze (Ngu and Chinoy, par. 20). In more recent fires, it is not just forests that are being burned; homes, cities, and sites of human development are all being turned to ash. In the past two decades, California saw nine of its ten largest wildfires ever (Masri, par. 3), and in 2018, it saw its worst wildfire season yet (Masri, par. 1). According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a wildfire is defined as “a sweeping and destructive conflagration, especially in a wilderness or a rural area” (Merriam-Webster, 2019), but fires have been moving from forests to urban areas. The controversy over wildfires turns into a question of what to do about volatile wildfires. One viewpoint is that Congress needs to pass legislation to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere by taxing carbon emissions and limiting funds for fossil fuel companies, but others argue it is time that people come to terms with the fact that when wildfires occur naturally, and they must be left alone to burn in order to prevent larger, more dangerous wildfires that could become life-threatening. Some think the issue should be handled at a more local level, saying that homes need to be made fire-resistant with various features to keep the people living in them safe and that vegetation around urban areas needs to be well maintained so as to not provide fuel for the fire. In the fiery debate over how to handle wildfires, climate change specialists, esteemed editorial writers, and forest directors are stakeholders. The burning question everyone is racing to find an answer to is, “What should be done about the wildfire detriment?”
In an article published by The Hill entitled, “Congress cannot ignore climate change as California burns,” Shahir Masri, an assistant specialist in air pollution exposure assessment, states that because California has been rapidly heating up, the state has seen a drastic increase in the number of fires burning rampantly. He argues that while they are taking some action, state officials are not doing nearly enough to compensate for all that is lost. The U.S. Forest Service has admitted to not preventing fires before they can occur but rather fighting the fires as they happen (Masri, par. 4). Congress has tried to make amends for the lack of attention going toward preventing fires, seeing as they passed a budget to assist the U.S. Forest Service in dealing with wildfires (Masri, par. 7), but Masri says this is not enough. He states that on top of the budget “Congress must pass meaningful legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” (Masri, par. 8) that taxes carbon emissions and puts a cap on the financial support extended to fossil fuel companies. He claims that “Congress will not act if Americans don’t ask them to” (Masri, par. 9) so it rests upon the shoulders of American citizens to push for change if they want to see any kind of progress.
Ash Ngu and Sahil Chinoy, editorial writers for The New York Times and graduates of Stanford University and the University of California respectively, contend in their article “To Help Prevent the Next Big Wildfire, Let the Forest Burn” that people must accept the fact that all parts of the forest cannot be saved and realize that it is essential that some wildfires be left to burn. California is vastly overgrown due to outdated laws stating that wildfires need to be put out as quickly as possible (Ngu and Chinoy, par. 5). Experts say that the recent jump in the number of harmful wildfires burning in California is widely due to these laws working alongside the rising temperatures climate change brings with it (Ngu and Chinoy, par. 6). Small fires benefit the ecosystem greatly, making the soil richer and letting sunlight hit the forest floor (Ngu and Chinoy, par. 11). With these small, controlled fires, CalFire, a Californian agency that works with the prevention and protection of wildfires (Ngu and Chinoy, par. 21), is attempting to find a solution “by streamlining the permit and planning process and training more personnel to conduct burns” (Ngu and Chinoy, par. 23). Ngu and Chinoy argue that though funds have been funneled toward helping people recover from the effects of wildfires (Ngu and Chinoy, par. 27), more action needs to take place. They say that controlled fires need to become commonplace in order to reduce the extremity of more disastrous wildfires, and that “it’s also about creating a new culture for forest and fire management in the state” (Ngu and Chinoy, par. 26).
In “Opinion: Why California's costly tree-cutting wildfire strategy fails,” an article written by Douglas Bevington, forest director for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation’s California Program, and published by The Mercury News, Bevington opines that homes should be modified to be better suited to survive wildfires and that vegetation should be maintained around these houses to prevent fires from burning so aggressively near homes. California is pushing money towards putting out fires as they occur and reducing logging throughout the state (Bevington, par. 1), but Bevington claims this is not working to the degree that it needs to. It has been proven a multitude of times that retrofitting homes and preparing the community for wildfires is “highly effective, such as during the 2017 La Tuna Fire in Los Angeles, where community preparation saved more than 99% of the houses in the path of a large wildfire” (Bevington, par. 4). CalFire recognized that these tactics were fruitful, only to not “recommend directing any funding for that purpose” (Bevington, par. 6) despite the numerous analyses coming out saying that it would be both extremely beneficial and low cost (Bevington, par. 6). Bevington says that if less funds were to be put toward extinguishing fires and rerouted toward modifying homes and controlling the growth of vegetation around houses, money, lives, and homes could be saved.
The authors of all three articles agree that though Californian officials are making some kind of action towards the issue of wildfires, more needs to be done. Masri says that in order to see change, American citizens must push for it while Bevington claims that the people have done their part, and it is time for officials to step up to the plate. Bevington makes suggestions for what to do post-fire, saying that California should be “retrofitting homes to have fire-resistant features such as non-flammable roofs and vent screens that keep burning embers out while trimming vegetation within a 100-foot radius” (Bevington, par. 3). However, his arguments would be rendered significantly less effective when put against Ngu and Chinoy’s ideas to use controlled fires to keep the larger ones from getting out of hand. The two articles meet in the middle, saying that vegetation needs to be maintained, whether by removing it like Bevington recommends or burning it as Ngu and Chinoy recommend. Masri, on the other hand, does not mention vegetation at all, claiming that Congress needs to “put a price on carbon emissions and reduce subsidies offered to fossil fuel companies” (Masri, par. 8) to help stop global temperatures from rising further since it is the increase in Earth’s temperature that is provoking these fires (Masri, par. 6).
The debate over the wildfire detriment rages on. People like Masri think that Congress needs to take action and pass legislation that will help to stop the rapidly rising global temperature. He thinks that if this can be done, then the number of wildfires burning will drop. Others think it would be best to take a more direct approach. Ngu and Chinoy believe that it is through the burning of small, controlled fires that dangerous wildfires will become less common and less taxing on the Earth. Bevington argues that there should be more effort going towards helping those who are potential victims by modifying their homes to be more tolerant of fires and cutting the vegetation around these homes. Though none of the authors have the exact same ideas about what to do, the controversy still remains. They all want to answer one question: what should be done to reduce the damage caused by wildfires?
- Bevington, Douglas. “Opinion: Why California's Costly Tree-Cutting Wildfire Strategy Fails.”, The Mercury News, 22 May 2019, https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/05/22/opinion-why-californias-costly-tree-cutting-wildfire-strategy-doesnt-work/. Web. 27 Sept. 2019.
- Masri, Shahir. “Congress Cannot Ignore Climate Change as California Burns.” , 18 Nov. 2018, https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/417319-congress-cannot-ignore-climate-change-as-california-burns. Web. 27 Sept. 2019.
- Ngu, A., & Chinoy, S. “To Help Prevent the Next Big Wildfire, Let the Forest Burn.”, The New York Times, 29 Nov. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/29/opinion/sunday/california-wildfires-forest-management.html?mtrref=www.google.com&gwh=75490623BED23DCB9AE7F1A718B8845B&gwt=pay&assetType=PAYWALL. Web. 27 Sept. 2019.
- “Wildfire.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2019. Web. 27 Sept. 2019.