Out West, if it is summer, it is often smoky. But the smoke that spread across the nation recently came not only from forest fires, but from the burning of thousands of homes in California and the Pacific Northwest. The human toll has been devastating: Millions of people endured hazardous air, thousands faced evacuation warnings and dozens have lost lives.
These fires have shaken us as foresters, ecologists, social scientists — and as residents living in a fire-prone landscape. Our community is fire-aware, proactively managing forest fuels and integrating wildfire into local planning. But given the extreme drought and weather that precipitated the fires of past weeks, we are keenly aware that we, too, are vulnerable to a future fire disaster.
In the past, "unprecedented" fire seasons have been catalysts for change. Unfortunately, the national conversation around the fires of 2020 is being framed as a false dichotomy: Is climate change or poor forest management to blame?
The answer is both — and more.
This false dichotomy ignores the complex and interrelated causes of wildfire, and it is counterproductive because it masks potential solutions we have at hand - solutions that require trust in science, community support and resolve.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for preventing wildfire disasters. In regions such as western Oregon, where recent disasters unfolded, forests that are typically too moist to burn have been historically shaped by large, severe fires that burned infrequently under extreme weather. It is unlikely that forest management could have prevented the recent fires because they burned under record-setting drought and high winds that made vegetation extremely flammable.
In low-elevation forests in dry regions, however, fires have occurred frequently. Historical management and a stubborn commitment to putting out all fires has increased tree densities and flammable vegetation in many of these forests. Here, cutting trees and removing dead vegetation is an important and effective tool to reduce the severity of fires and protect communities when fires happen. Such thinning efforts offer other benefits: Logging produces jobs, provides sustainable building materials and supports local economies.
Fire itself is one of our best tools for reducing flammable vegetation. Indigenous people know this well, and purposeful burning of forests and grasslands is tightly woven into their culture and land ethic. Allowing natural fires to burn under moderate conditions is a cost-effective way to reduce fuels and the severity of future fires over larger areas, and is particularly important near communities and homes.
For all their benefits, thinning and prescribed burning alone will not prevent future wildfires. Lightning and people will still start fires. Fires will grow rapidly under hot, dry and windy conditions. Our landscapes are simply too large, and vegetation grows back too quickly, for forest management to be the sole solution. We cannot simply "log our way out" of this one.
To succeed, we must also acknowledge another cause of fire disasters: us. We've built millions of homes within increasingly flammable landscapes, not only for the aesthetics but because of affordable housing shortages elsewhere. As a result, most fire disasters today have human causes. For example, 13 of the recent wildfires in Oregon were started by power lines damaged by extreme winds. Researchers in Colorado recently found that 97% of wildfires threatening homes between 1992 and 2015 were ignited by people.
These facts require us to reconsider how we build and develop, and to transform infrastructure across the West, from fire-resistant building materials to buried power lines and decentralized power grids.
All of this, however, still won't be enough if we fail to address the elephant in the room: climate change. Left unchecked, a warming planet will continue to exacerbate wildfire risks as snow packs decline and melt earlier, summers get warmer and drier, and fire seasons last longer. Climate change is a major reason we have experienced more wildfires in the West since the 1980s.
Reducing wildfires' impact on humans thus requires significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions while we adapt to the already inevitable impacts of climate change — including more wildfires.
To move forward, we must prioritize and fund forest management near our most vulnerable communities, increasing the pace and scale of thinning and prescribed burning, and allowing wildfires to burn when and where we can. Paired with fire-aware planning and construction, we can create communities that are resilient to wildfires, including where fires have been historically rare.
All of this requires leaders who embrace comprehensive approaches over simple rhetoric and who understand that solutions require significant resources and commitment. Failing to address the existential threat of climate change, however, will undermine any progress offered by forest management and smarter development. We need to pursue all of these solutions or, like Sisyphus, we will be relegated to forever pushing a boulder up a hill, surrounded by flames.
Higuera, Dodson, Metcalf and Dobrowski are faculty in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana. This piece was written for The Washington Post.