How will California prevent more mega-wildfire disasters?

As climate change-driven drought increasingly grips the state, experts turn to natural solutions to fight the flames.

Sasha Berleman walks through 10 acres of burned woods in a coastal forest about 26 miles north of San Francisco, California. A fire ecologist for the conservation organization Audubon Canyon Ranch, she and a crew of 40 firefighters and trained volunteers had set the area ablaze three weeks earlier. Now she’s looking for signs of regeneration.

Berleman’s team was using low-intensity ground fire to remove a thick carpet of fallen pine needles and broken, sawed-off branches that littered the forest floor. The fire also took out small trees and shrubs that could have served as fuel ladders, bringing fire into the larger trees’ canopies. This formerly dense forest now looks like a wooded park, with wide spaces between the large trees, many scorched but still alive, and a few dead snags that will be left standing for woodpeckers and other cavity nesters. Native needle grass, blackberry, and coffeeberry are beginning to sprout out of the ashy soil.

“Prescribed fires” like this are part of Audubon Canyon’s “Fire Forward” program. Berleman, who leads it, is among the growing number of scientists, conservationists, foresters, loggers, first responders, and impassioned citizens who are betting heavily on the use of low-intensity fire as a major tool to better steward the state’s increasingly flammable forests, grasslands, and chaparral.

The goal is to restore those ecosystems to how they were in past centuries, when fires caused by lightning burned undisturbed. Ironically, the suppression of naturally occurring fire has contributed to more intense, catastrophic fires throughout the state.

At about the same time as her prescribed fire was being carefully set in late October, the uncontrolled Kincade Fire about 75 miles to the northeast was burning 77,778 acres, despite the best efforts of more than 5,000 firefighters over two weeks. That fire forced close to 200,000 people to evacuate their homes and sent a pall of unhealthy smoke over the San Francisco Bay Area.

“There is no ‘no smoke, no fire’ solution to what’s going on,” says Berleman. “We’re going to have fire no matter what, so let’s do a slew of fires that we can love. If we do that, we can still probably work our way out of the problem we’re in now.”

A growing problem

Over several decades, fires in the West—particularly in California—have been growing in size and intensity, and have been particularly devastating in the last three to five years. Many factors have contributed. First, one hundred years of misguided forest management aimed at total fire suppression has eliminated the role of natural fire on the landscape, allowing two to four times the normal amount of woody fuel to accumulate even as the biggest, healthiest, most fire-resistant trees were being logged out.

In addition, California’s population has about doubled since 1970, from 20 million to almost 40 million, leading to unprecedented sprawl along what’s called the wildland-urban interface (WUI), putting millions more people in harm’s way. Also during this period, climate change has extended the fire season by at least 75 days since the 1970s. California’s 2018 Climate Change Assessment predicts large fires (including megafires of 100,000 acres or more) will likely increase by 50 percent and acreage burned by at least 77 percent during this century.

Meanwhile, bark beetle infestations following the historic droughts of 2006 to 2010 and 2011 to 2017 killed an estimated 150 million trees, which are now primed to burn. The Sierra Nevada mountain range that John Muir once called the Range of Light is at risk of becoming a range of ghosts.

The top question for state officials and citizens alike is what to do about the mounting crisis. In the past five years, California has not just mobilized resources to fight its fires but used creative approaches that can help restore its landscape. Firefighters are using high-tech tools ranging from a supertanker jet aircraft to drop fire retardant to satellites and drones to monitor landscapes, plus evacuation phone apps that include alerts, fire maps, and escape routes.

Yet what’s proving to be the most promising prevention solution is also the oldest and, until recently, most overlooked: fighting bad fire with good fire.

Getting dirty

A hopeful indicator of how a well-planned fire can behave is an uncharred wooden bench in the Audubon Canyon burn area. It’s inscribed, “In Memory of Joan Devine—A lover of Nature.” Berleman explains its survival: “We sprayed it with water before setting fire to the area.”

Those who used the bench used to have “a nice view of Bolinas Lagoon,” she says. Today, the view is of what Berleman calls Blair Witch (after the movie), the kind of dark, tangled, hard-to-penetrate forests that many Californians have grown up believing to be their natural state. Since the 1980s, the area has been thickly colonized by stands of Douglas fir that outperform local shade-intolerant and fire-germinated species such as live oak and California lilac, as well as the state’s iconic and majestic redwoods—all of which depend on regular, low-intensity fire to flourish.

“These 10 acres give us an anchor for a bigger burn down the fire road. Bolinas Ridge has spurs going down to the sea, and I can imagine us burning those canyons all the way down, whole watersheds,” she says, her grey eyes lighting up.

That could be done using helicopters dropping delayed aerial ignition devices, or DAIDs, the size of ping-pong balls and filled with combustible chemicals. “When fire behavior becomes moderate, endangered shrubs and native bunch grass get a chance to reclaim the area, and we have lower fuel loads and higher biodiversity,” Berleman says.

“We’re in the warm-up phase now. Seeing how the public reacts and agencies interact, I could see a world where we do landscape-scale management, but we’re running out of time to reach scale.”

An ambitious plan

In 2017 the Tubbs Fire in Northern California was ignited by power lines during a hot, dry October. Densely packed trees and high winds created conditions for the perfect firestorm. Tree-canopy embers, or “crown fire,” spread flames faster than people could respond. It grew into what was then the most destructive wildfire in California history, killing 22 people and destroying more than 5,600 structures.

California’s largest and deadliest wildfires occurred in 2018. Northern California’s Mendocino Complex Fire burned more than 459,000 acres (717 square miles) and the Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed more than 17,000 homes in Paradise.

In 2019, hundreds of wildfires, 330 in one 24-hour period, caused mass evacuations. Utility companies cut power to 3 million people in an attempt to prevent new power line–sparked fires; gritty smoke spread ash and turned air into a public health hazard. Grass and chaparral fires also torched heavily populated areas of Southern California, including Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Ventura.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, now known as CAL FIRE, estimates that of 33 million acres of forest in the state, 8 to10 million acres need urgent mechanical thinning and burning to prevent similar disasters. CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service, which by itself controls 47 percent of the state’s forests, aim to treat a million acres a year this way by 2025.

Many think that’s overly ambitious. Under an Emergency Proclamation by Governor Gavin Newsom, CAL FIRE is starting to fund 35 priority fire management projects on some 90,000 acres. During the next five years, the department will also spend a billion dollars from the state’s cap-and-trade climate fund. That will go for restoration, reforestation, fuel reduction, proscribed fire, biomass utilization, and new research. The goal is to make forests more resilient to continued climate change and wildfire. It’s what author and conservationist Aldo Leopold called “intelligent tinkering.”

A billion dollars might seem a significant commitment until compared to the cost of not taking action. The Camp Fire—the world’s costliest natural disaster in 2018—caused $16.5 billion in damages.

CAL FIRE’s Deputy Director of Resource Management Helge Eng seems undeterred by the scale of the needed response. “We’re kind of past the point of ‘Do No Harm.’ We’re going to have to have forest management. It’s challenging but not unsolvable,” he says. California being what it is—we have the leading scientists and there is an emerging consensus on best practices. It’s now a matter of learning by doing it, and just getting dirty.”

Taking fires to task

Much of the “emerging consensus” is based on work by University of California researchers such as Brandon Collins, conducted at the 4,000-acre UC Berkeley Blodgett Experimental Forest. At 4,000 feet elevation, in a mixed confer zone of the Sierra Nevada, with its crisp, pine mountain air near the American River, it is home to ponderosas and sugar pine, black oak, white and Douglas firs, and incense cedars with straight, reddish trunks that look like smaller redwoods. There are also some mountain redwoods, giant sequoias relocated here by curious foresters of an earlier generation. One of them looks like a perfect top-shaped 50-foot-tall Christmas tree.

This past November, Collins walked through a 20-year-long study area where 25- to 40-acre units have been tested for fire resiliency, ability to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, and other factors. Some stands have been left alone. One of those 30-acre control sites is dense with branch-heavy trees, some leaning into each other. Brush, sticks, foot-long sappy pinecones and dry pine needles cover the ground over a thick layer of duff—half-decomposed vegetation not quite gone to soil, still combustible in the right circumstances.

“It’s not a healthy forest, but this is the forest people know,” he explains.

We move through other units that have been clear-cut, some that have had only mechanical thinning using chainsaws, and heavier equipment such as bulldozer-like masticators with rotary drums that can shred stands of small trees into piles of pellets. Some units have been both thinned and treated with prescribed fire and some were only burned. Interestingly, he notes that lighting ground fire alone appears to have the greatest ecological benefits.

“A burned forest doesn’t look great right away, but come back a couple of years later and it’s different,” Collins says. “We can educate people about what fire can do. But today’s megafires don’t do any ecological good. They leave big holes in the forest, 10,000 to 20,000 acres that convert to shrub land. Crown fires remove forests!”

An example of how prescribed fire can reduce the impact of megafires at a landscape scale came as an unplanned experiment during 2013’s massive Rim Fire that burned 257,314 acres (more than 400 square miles) in the Sierra Nevada, including 77,254 acres in Yosemite National Park. But the National Park Service had been applying light ground fire since 1970, when its rangers realized the park’s giant sequoias needed fire to regenerate.

More than 30 years of fuel reduction meant the conflagration’s destructive impact inside the park was far less than on surrounding National Forest land. A 2017 study of the Rim Fire by Penn State geographers confirmed that controlled burn areas had far less severe impacts from the big fire.

Using planned fire as a means to maintain and restore forests is not new to California. Native peoples here and elsewhere have used it for thousands of years to generate food and fiber, open space for wildlife, and reduce the risk of larger fires.

Bill Tripp, deputy director of Eco-Cultural Revitalization with the Karuk Tribe in Northern California, explains, “We had permanent houses and villages made out of Port Orford cedar plank and fires out of the high country wouldn’t flow fire down into the village because of the reduced fuel load.”

“When we did our first 5- to 6-acre burn [on the Klamath River] we got complaints about smoke and the Air [Quality Management] District calling but we explained why we were doing what we were doing and now it’s rare anyone calls to complain,” he says.

Tripp recently organized a 218-acre prescribed fire, but hopes to be able to manage 60,000 acres of land with fire within the next seven years.

Tackling fire from the grass up

California has two very different fire threats: forest fires that tend to be fuel-driven and brush fires (actually grassland and chaparral), that tend to be wind-driven. Some 25 percent of California’s fire-prone landscape is grassland. Each fall, hot Santa Ana winds in Southern California combine with sparks from vehicles, power lines, accidents, and arsonists to cause many of the state’s worst fires to rage across its most populous region.

Compounding the problem is that invasive European grasses first brought in on the hooves of Spanish cattle have replaced many of the tough native bunch grasses, wildflowers, and original chaparral that are adapted not to burn as easily. So while lessening the density of forests can reduce the potential for catastrophic fires in some areas, in others, replacing invasive plants with native plants by mowing or use of grazing animals where needed might be a better way to go.

Lech Naumovich, a light-bearded botanist and self-identified “grasslands geek,” is one of the few people taking on California’s wildfire problem from what might be called the “grassroots” up. His Golden Hour Restoration Institute has a few projects underway in Northern California, but none larger than 50 acres.

“We’ll mow for three to five years. What we’re trying to do is reduce the seed grain of the nonnatives that produce a whole lot of thatch that the wind will dry up like straw that can easily burn,” Naumovich explains.

“After big fires, they germinate a week or two earlier than the natives and shade them out unless they are cut back. Native grasses and wildflowers however are more fire resistant, with deeper roots. Coyote brush roots can go down 12 to 15 feet. It’s really amazing.”

Asked if he thinks people can ever mow enough to impact the millions of acres of combustible grassland across the state, Naumovich responds: “People are scared by the scale. But we’ve done this with lawns and vegetable gardens. How many acres of lawn do we mow every year in California? How many acres of golf course are mowed, what, 200 times a year?”

“So we need to get people out there working on the land and creating new jobs at the landscape level because the results could be remarkable in terms of reducing fire danger and having a positive climate impact.”

On a bulldozed hilltop under dark clouds, Dennis Rein, a gregarious, white-haired Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for the Moraga-Orinda Fire District, is using a combination of fire management approaches. He is directing two younger firefighters who are cranking out circular sprays of new life from red vinyl bags full of native grasses and wildflower seeds onto a gouged drainage. Its eroded banks face the expensive homes and thick vegetation of suburban Sleepy Hollow Valley.

It doesn’t look like a landscape-scale solution until you begin to scan the rolling hills that separate the East Bay Regional Parks from the commuter towns of Moraga, Orinda, and Lafayette. You can see a continuous wide swath of closely cropped golden ground with scattered live oak among a thicker sea of light green trees and thicket undulating toward the horizon. This 15-mile-long, 1,550-acre, $4 million “shaded fuel break” is one of the state’s 35 priority projects, and scores of people have put countless hours of backbreaking labor into it with weed whackers, chainsaws, and axes.

“It’s barely a blip in terms of what’s needed, but we’re trying to find important blips close to populations at risk and hope it can act as an anchor point,” Rein says.

Asked if he means serve as an anchor for letting natural fire burn through the East Bay Parks, he responds, “Philosophically it's a great idea, but realistically we’d probably go in and put it out.”

He turns as his crew approaches, “The old man and the workers,” he grins. “Next spring we’ll set fire to this area and brush will keep sprouting back, but I’m told by the scientists if we keep coming back 3 or 4 years in a row it will turn back to [native] grassland.”

He looks down across the wooded suburban rooftops. “There are lots of narrow roads in Orinda and Moraga, so fuel management for evacuation routes is a priority.” He has another crew working nearby with a mobile wood chipper as part of their Fire Safe Neighborhood program that encourages people to cut the dead tree limbs in their yards. If residents leave them by the curb, the fire department will chip them for free.

“We also use goats [for preventative grazing], but the herders have figured out the market, how in demand they are, and so it’s getting expensive,” he says.

His expression turns slightly grim. “A fast-moving fire pushed by 40 mile-per-hour winds would be into those homes really quickly, and that ridge,” he says, pointing to an area about 2 miles away, “right over that is Oakland and Berkeley. With 60 mile-per-hour winds a fire could be there in maybe an hour.”

While projects like this one help protect parks and wilderness, the main focus remains risk reduction in the wildland-urban interface to protect human lives and property during the ongoing crisis. However, restoring natural landscapes is proving the best approach.

“To try and avoid catastrophic wildfires you have to prevent them, and California is well ahead of others in balancing prevention versus suppression,” says CAL FIRE’s Helge Eng.

“With these fires, people are looking at their own back yards, and so we’re seeing broad-based support from the public. So we really can achieve some ecologically significant change if we can maintain that enduring commitment over the years, because this is something we aren’t going to solve in the next year or two.”

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