The Thomas Fire on its way to being the largest wildfire in California history. It started just two months after the Wine Country fires, the state’s most destructive ever.
Both events are odd conflagrations, with the Thomas Fire being particularly out of character for this time of year. But in a world where climate change is heating things up and drying out fuels, monster fires are only going to become more common, and we’re going to have to quickly get our shit together to deal with them.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot to do.
“The risk of fire is clearly increasing in California and many other western states, and for better or worse that does create an opportunity to gain some hard-fought lessons,” Jennifer Marlon, a wildfire researcher at Yale, told Earther.
Let’s start with what’s going on now. The Thomas Fire has now topped out at 271,000 acres, making it California’s third-largest fire. It’s also destroyed at least 1,313 structures, making its California’s seventh-most destructive fire. That number is likely to rise as firefighters continue to try and tame the fire, and investigators move in to fully assess the damage.
The fire is 50 percent contained and the weather is turning in firefighters’ favor. Until this point, the Santa Ana winds have fanned the flames since it ignited the week before last.
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“They’re not new,” Michael Gollner, a University of Maryland expert in wildfire protection, told Earther. “That’s been a critical pattern long before we arrived. In California’s chaparral, every 50 years you can expect a major fire there.”
But while those winds are common for this time of year, so is rain. Unfortunately, the latter has been in short supply. This has been one of the driest starts to the water year—which begins Oct. 1—on record. Extreme heat has also dried out fuels, priming the landscape to burn.
Extreme fire conditions like these are becoming more common in California. Of the 20 biggest fires, 14 have occurred since 2000.
And beyond California, wildfire season across the West is stretching longer, and seeing an uptick in large fires. All told, wildfire season is 105 days longer than it was in the 1970s, due largely to rising temperatures. Research published last year attributed nearly half of all area burned in the western U.S. to climate change alone.
Humans are also setting more fires than ever either through arson, downed power lines or other means, providing the spark that climate change amplifies into an inferno.
We’re not waiting for some new state to arrive. It’s here, and it’s only likely to get worse as temperatures rise. There are already 46 million homes in what researchers dub the urban-wildland interface, a number expected to rise as more people move to areas that allow them to commune with nature.
Take California again. The Tubbs Fire destroyed entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, Calif. in October as embers rode the backs of Diablo Winds—the Santa Ana’s northern cousins—across the landscape. All told, 5,643 structures were damaged or burned to the ground, making it far and away California’s most destructive fire. Of the 20 most destructive fires in the state’s history, 13 have occurred since 2000.
Unpacking how people responded to those fires can pay the most immediate dividends. That means understanding when they evacuated, and why and how prepared they were.
“Individual’s stories may be the most powerful lessons we can take away, because broader-scale institutional changes are unlikely to improve the situation in the near future,” Marlon said. “People are not going to suddenly stop setting fires, and climate changes are creating an ever-more fire-prone environment.”
But beyond the immediate benefits we can reap, there are tons of lessons to be learned from the Thomas and other fires that will pay long term dividends, and make communities more resilient. That’s particularly true for understanding how fires move through landscapes, communities and even homes.
Gollner said our knowledge of fire’s impacts lags behind other disasters, like earthquakes and hurricanes, as do our building codes.
And unlike storms and quakes, which are forces of nature completely outside our control, we can actually do something about fires and even stop them in their tracks.
Removing fuels in their path is one way to drastically reduce the risk. Strong building codes can also make a huge difference. Just like it has earthquake building codes, California also has wildfire codes. They cover everything from having mesh over vents to prevent embers from burning a house from the inside out, to windows that can are fire-resistant for at least 20 minutes.
Regulators also in theory keep an eye on utilities’ power lines to ensure they don’t spark fires, though they’ve been accused of lax enforcement. In 2015, the last year with data, wildfires sparked by electrical infrastructure failures burned the most acreage in California.
Gollner said better data analysis can dramatically improve building codes and could help with regulations as well. He pointed to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has done infrequent but detailed looks at major urban-wildland fires.
“We need to do projects like that over the entire country to get a better sense of disasters,” he said. “There’s a good look back on how we suppressed fires, but we don’t take as good a look back on planning.”
Even if we don’t have the means to unlock that knowledge yet, it’s clear that it will have to be more than individuals planning separately. Communities have to participate together to make it work.
“If the whole community is decently protected but one home is not, then you have a fire burning in the middle and you can have home-to-home spread,” Gollner said.
The burden doesn’t stop there, though. The federal and state governments have a lot of responsibility to keep people safe.
Right now, they’re locked in a financial struggle. California is one of the most expensive states in the country to fight fires in, owing to its highly populated nature. According to reporting from SCPR, up to 90 percent of cost of suppressing fires comes from structure protection. Last year, the state allocated $429 million to fight fires.
The federal wildfire budget is also a huge mess. This year, the U.S. Forest Service spent $2 billion on suppression. That’s the most money its ever spent, well outpacing a 2015 report that projected suppression costs would top out at $1.8 billion in 2025. Oops.
More half the agency’s budget now goes to wildfire management, which also includes controlled burns as well as preparedness activities. But the cost to put fires out is by far the biggest drag on the budget.
In a political climate where Congressional Republicans almost took money out of grad students’ pockets, getting money for wildfire prevention through clearing areas, managed burns, and other techniques might seem impossible. But wildfires blacken red and blue states alike. There are two wildfire funding bills currently in Congress, including one with bipartisan support from senators in western states.
That one would end “fire borrowing,” the current funding mechanism that allow the Forest Service to divert fire prevention funds to fighting fires. Instead, the senators would like to fund firefighting activities like the federal government funds other disaster responses. That would leave prevention money in place, and help ensure our forests are slightly less flammable. Coupled with community efforts, it could allow people to live in landscapes they love, and take firefighters out of dangerous situations.
“Firefighters are putting their lives on the line to protect our homes and communities,” Gollner said. “It’s important for us to think about them putting their lives on the line. How much do we want to be risking lives when we haven’t done enough to protect our homes with due diligence?”