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Climate Disaster Is Turning the Planet into a Tinderbox
Mike Savala’s boots scuffed the edge of a singed patch of forest littered with skinny fingers of burnt ponderosa pine needles. Nearby, an oak seedling sizzled as a yellow-shirted firefighter hit it with a stream of water. Spurts of smoke rose from blackened ground the size of a hockey rink. A 100-foot Ponderosa pine towered overhead.
“Third response today,” said Savala, shaking his head.
This hillside in my own backyard in California’s northern Sierra Nevada mountains hadn’t seen lightning for months and yet it had still burst into flames. All summer long, it had baked in heat that extended into an unseasonably hot autumn. Now, in late October, it was charred by a fire of mysterious origin. A spark from a wandering hiker? An errant ember from a burn pile? Spontaneous combustion?
Savala, a fire-crew boss for the Greenville Rancheria of Maidu Indians, scanned the sky. Cloudless. There had only been three inches of precipitation since July 1st — 15% of normal. And no wonder, since California is in the throes of its fourth dry year. More than 95% of the state is now classified as under severe or extreme drought.
Although small and easily contained, this tiny fire in rural northeastern California was another wake-up call, up close and personal, about an ominous trend. A warming planet and changing land use are fueling a dramatic surge in forest fires worldwide. Terrifying projections forecast a 57% increase in extreme fires globally by century’s end. The indisputable cause: climate change.
“The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes,” a team of 50 researchers from six continents reported in “Spreading Like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires,” published this year by the United Nations Environment Program. That document describes what can only be viewed as a future flaming version of planetary collapse that could push humanity perilously close to a precipice of no return.
Like dozens of previous reports from the U.N. and other international organizations, it describes a situation that, while dire, isn’t yet hopeless. Despite those ever stronger, hotter, drier winds that will fan the flames, governments could slow climate change by improving their forest management techniques, planning and preparing far better, and communicating more effectively. To reduce the likelihood of future mega-fires means working with forests where fire is an element as essential to ecosystems as sunshine or rain. It also means working with forest communities, where local knowledge accumulated over generations is too often shunned. And of course, it means honestly confronting our reluctance to ween ourselves from the fossil fuels that power our factories, cars, and those absurdly unnecessary leaf blowers that are backing us toward the cliff.
A Fiery Feedback Loop
If my small backyard fire was a personal wake-up call, the 2021 Dixie fire was a four-alarm blaze. On its rampage from the Feather River Canyon through Lassen Volcanic National Park and beyond, it destroyed my adopted town of Greenville, 160 miles northeast of San Francisco. In fact, it torched close to a million acres. Nearly half of them burned so intensely that the once-majestic, now blackened pine and fir forests there may never again support the biologically diverse ecosystems that drew me here so long ago.
The single-largest fire in California’s history, Dixie was part of a record-breaking fire year globally. Around the world, fires burned nearly 23 million acres, an area almost the size of Portugal. Dixie contributed to the worldwide loss to fire of more than a third of the tree cover that disappeared in those 12 months, according to a report from the World Resources Institute. And this is only a preview of what’s to come. Scientists believe that there may be a 30% increase in extreme fires globally by 2050.
Such an acceleration of forest fires will, it seems, spare few parts of the world. Fires, burning longer and hotter, are already flaring in unexpected places, shattering assumptions about what’s safe, let alone normal. Even the Arctic, that remote expanse of sea ice, treeless permafrost, and minus 40-degree Celsius temperatures, home to polar bears, lemmings, and snowy owls, is now beginning to burn. After July 2019, the hottest month on record so far, fires erupted across the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia. As temperatures soared to as much as six degrees Celsius above normal, flames spurted across an expanse of tundra larger than England.
Arctic fires are particularly worrisome because of the vast amounts of carbon locked beneath that frozen soil. Much of it, after all, is peatlands, largely formed at the end of the last ice age, 12,000 years ago. Although it covers just 3% of the Earth’s surface, peat sequesters 42% of the carbon stored in all other types of vegetation, including the world’s forests. Global warming is now drying out that peat, making it ever more susceptible to fire. As it burns, of course, it releases that carbon.
Nor is such a bio-feedback loop limited to the Arctic. As the world becomes hotter and drier, the carbon we emit from our reliance on fossil fuels is drying out forests everywhere, making them ever more prone to burn, while extending burning seasons globally. Firefighters in California used to don fire-resistant Nomex shirts in May or June, knowing they could shed them by mid-October. Now, there’s barely a pause before things heat up again and those shirts go right back on.
As wildfires are transformed into year-round challenges, the carbon they release only further contributes to emissions from other sources, making it that much more difficult to halt rising temperatures. Think of it as a mutually exacerbating feedback loop: wildfires are worsened by climate change, which, in turn, is intensified by the ever-fiercer wildfires.
Management for Better — or Worse
Forests around the world evolved with fire, hosting species that came to depend on its cleansing power for renewal and the flushes of nutrients it releases. Indigenous people understood this and learned to live with fire. Over the last century, however, many forests have been fundamentally altered by a misunderstanding of its essential role in forest resilience. While climate change is indeed the primary driver of the global increase in wildfires, forest management has played its own substantive and mostly negative role in that increase by overemphasizing the importance of fire suppression.
Scientists and policymakers are urging fire-fighting agencies to rethink their use of financial and human resources. Instead of focusing primarily on how many crews can be mustered for fire suppression, the emphasis should shift to planning and prevention. Most countries devote less than 0.2% of their wildfire expenditures to such planning, according to U.N. researchers. In the United States, just 40 cents of every dollar spent on managing wildfires goes toward reducing fire risk or helping forest communities like mine recover in ways that could make them more resilient.
“There isn’t the right attention to fire from governments,” says Glynis Humphrey, a fire expert at the University of Cape Town and one of those U.N. researchers.
Whether it’s the collapse of forest ecosystems before our eyes or the trauma of entire towns like Greenville burning up in raging infernos, forest managers are slowly starting to respond to the global crisis — with sadly mixed results.
A wave of deadly fires in Portugal in 2017 that killed 117 people and ravaged 1.3 million acres evoked fierce popular condemnation of the government’s response, prompting that country to adopt an aggressive 20-year plan to transform its fire management. It aims to use fire as a tool, while increasing understanding of its positive role in such a heavily forested country. Prime Minister Antonio Costa has restricted funding aimed at combatting fires to less than 10% of the total spent, while rural communities are to become more involved in protecting their homes and businesses. However, his new plan was barely launched last summer when temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) and 40-mile-per-hour winds contributed to yet another series of out-of-control wildfires, forcing evacuations of whole communities and a nationwide state of emergency.
Throughout the western United States, a century of public policy committed to suppressing all wildfire has left our forests unnaturally crammed with small-diameter trees and brush. Scientists documented as much as a sevenfold increase in tree density in the Sierra mountains between 1911 and 2011. While large old-growth trees have evolved to live with fires, those small trees and shrubs form an unnatural bed of fuel for future infernos. As a result, blazes in the West increased by seven large fires a year from the mid-1980s through 2011, according to a study by scientists at the University of Utah and the University of California, Berkeley.
What needs to be done is clear, says Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at Berkeley. “Active stewardship is the only way we’ll ever get out of this.”
In California, state and federal officials have committed to reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfires by returning fire to the forest ecosystems that evolved with it. They’ve set a goal of igniting planned fires to burn away such brush and seedlings on one million acres annually. In September 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation allocating $1.5 billion to wildfire mitigation projects, the largest such investment in state history. Last January, the federal government also announced a $600 million program to support California’s wildfire recovery efforts. As well-intentioned as such programs may be, however, they have so far fallen well short of their objective. Fire managers hope that, in 2022, they will have set prescribed burns on 200,000 acres, only 20% of the goal. Add in logging to thin overcrowded stands of trees and they may reach 300,000 acres.
Amid the frightening statistics on rising temperatures and scorched acres, an 8,800-acre area in California demonstrates the potential for active management to reduce the dangers of destructive wildfires. In 2019, Forest Service crews set intentional fires on the western slopes of the central Sierra Nevada near Caples Lake. Last summer, when the 222,000-acre Caldor fire roared through there en route to South Lake Tahoe, it left a finger of green where prescribed fires had reduced the forest’s fuels. While that was only a small island of resilience, consider it an enormous example of possibility.
The Promise of Technology
Some of the government agencies most criticized for their management of wildfires are now turning to technology to help detect them before they turn into infernos. In this, they are not alone globally. Take Australia, where fires in the catastrophic 2019-2020 summer season, the worst in that country’s recorded history, killed 34 people directly and another 445 through smoke inhalation. Often sparked by lightning at a time of warmer-than-average temperatures and lower-than-average precipitation, they destroyed about 6,000 buildings and killed an estimated 1.5 billion animals. In response, last year, Australia launched a satellite system connected to ground-based cameras and aerial drones meant to spot any fire within one minute of ignition.
Sonoma County, California, has similarly been testing fire-detecting artificial intelligence technology for two years now. In 2017, that area just north of San Francisco was devastated by the deadly 37,000-acre Tubbs fire. Three other fires followed in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, county officials linked artificial intelligence software to an already existing system of tower-mounted cameras. Called ALERTWildfire, it snaps photographs every 10 seconds, exposing smoke and flames. The AI sifts through the camera images in a fashion designed to increase the speed of detecting such blazes and so getting firefighters to them faster.
After the first full season, the results, however, were anything but overwhelming: AI detections beat humans in spotting fires only once out of every 10 times. Now, managers are directing their AI-adapted cameras to look for fires where humans are unlikely to spot them — as Sam Wallis, a community alert and warning manager, put it: the fires “way out in the middle of nowhere, the ones that really scare us.” He’s also optimistic about AI’s potential for detecting nighttime fires, which can smolder in the forest duff for significant periods before bursting into uncontrollable flames. Overall, Wallis said, “the AI is not a silver bullet, but it is a bullet.”
Last year, Pacific Gas and Electric also began adding AI software similar to the kind Australia is testing to its network of cameras. It’s a better-late-than-never effort to reduce the number of deadly wildfires sparked all too notoriously by its own faulty equipment. The company has, after all, been implicated in at least five major California wildfires including the Dixie one.
Then there are the “dragon eggs.” The Forest Service is dropping those ping-pong-sized balls from remote-controlled aircraft to start controlled burns designed to return fire to its natural role of keeping forest fuels more balanced. The chemicals in the spheres ignite when they hit the ground. During the Dixie fire, drones dropped such incendiary balls on a mountainside ahead of the advancing flames to start what’s known as a backfire and did indeed create a fire-unfriendly zone in its wake.
Such management efforts may prove effective both in returning forest stands to a state of fire resilience and in curbing runaway blazes. They don’t, however, relieve officials of what many consider their unconscionable failure to enact the most basic laws to curb the greenhouse gases that are driving such climate-change-induced disasters. Apocalyptic scenes — cities blanketed in smoke, vast landscapes left lifeless — have prompted proposals before the U.N. to include “ecocide” as the 5th international crime, alongside genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression.
Sadly, humanity may already have passed the point of simply managing ourselves out of the fiery apocalypse scientists predict we’re heading for. Global mean surface temperatures are already up 1.09 degrees Celsius and rising. The precipice looms.
Yes, technology can help and, if the feet of agencies are held to the proverbial flames they’re committed to managing more effectively, the oncoming inferno may yet be slowed, if not halted altogether. But if we don’t take responsibility for what’s happening, all our talk, all that bureaucratic lingo about creating a low-carbon economy and hitting net zero in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 may be little more than what environmental activist Greta Thunberg has called the “blah blah blah.”
Still, hope is empowering and activity galvanizing. While it’s taken far too many destroyed towns to get there, California, at least, is beginning to grasp what’s needed to live with fire. Both cultural and monetary support is now strong — and growing — for prescribed burns and fuel-treatment projects. And so, locally, we take chainsaws to the smaller trees overcrowding our woods, using what we remove to heat our homes. We prune the branches from the large fire-resilient trees, chopping them to fit our stoves. We rake the small debris and forest litter into burn piles, wishing we had a way to utilize those forest products, too, instead of adding to the very emissions we’re trying to reduce. And we keep on igniting small, safe burns to return resilience to these lands that once enjoyed the benefits of fire. On such a planet in such a time, the question remains: Will any of it be enough to live with the fire next time?
Days after our backyard blaze flared up, it snowed: eight inches of reassurance that this fire, at least, would not smolder and restart. But by the end of November, the Sierra had no additional rain and state officials were at the edge of declaring a fourth year of drought. Somewhere in our future, the inferno still lurks.
Copyright 2022 Jane Braxton Little. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.
Jane Braxton Little is an independent journalist who writes about science and natural resources for publications that include the Atlantic, Audubon, National Geographic, and Scientific American. She moved to Plumas County in 1969 for a summer that has yet to end.
Around 146 million tonnes of carbon was released in the 2019 and 2020 fires in the Arctic (photo: istock)