What can be done to avoid disastrous wildfires in California?
While California is currently suffering from the worst wildfires in its history and its aftermath, one must look at the future and ask, “Is there anything that actually can be done to tackle these wildfires to prevent the kind of damage and loss of life that has occurred?”
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Travis Longcore, a wildfire expert at the University of Southern California, says there are steps California can take to prepare itself for more wildfires, but some of them won’t be easy.
“The first step is land use planning,” Longcore said. “Identifying places that are particularly hard to protect in extreme weather events, and making hard decisions for what places are acceptable to develop and which aren’t.”
But Longcore says that it is hard to prevent development in these high-risk areas. “It is very hard to undo development,” he said.
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Ze’ev Gedalof, an environment associate professor at the University of Guelph, agrees that development has played a hand in the damage California wildfires cause.
“Most of our vulnerability to wildfire comes as a consequence of how much development has happened,” he said. “We want to live next to nature, but don’t want to live with the consequences of that decision or do anything to reduce the associated risk.”
Longcore said that there are steps companies can make to change their infrastructure to play better with fire.
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He said removing dead trees and vegetation that are immediately adjacent to developments is one way to make things safer, as well as utilities ensuring that downed lines or even a bird electrocution don’t start fires, given the risky weather conditions, such as terrible droughts in the state.
“In recent large wildfires, we find they are associated with powerline infrastructure going through wildlands,” he said. “It is inevitable that [companies] have to address these issues because they lose infrastructure as well [when there are fires].”
The next step is for people to be educated for little things they can do to help and know the evacuation routine. Longcore says that California is doing well in that area through such programs as Ready Set Go, which makes sure people are ready to evacuate and get notice.
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“For the size of southern California, there was a very orderly evacuation [that involved] a quarter-million people,” he said.
Things people can do include clearing their eaves, make sure there aren’t overhanging trees, or not placing firewood beside their house.
In Australia, the government has enacted policies so homeowners won’t be paid insurance if their home is destroyed and it wasn’t fireproofed, Gedalof says, but those policies have not been enforced in North America.
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In fact, Gedalof tells of a story where one farmer in eastern Washington who did fireproof his house, which remained standing while all the others burned down, actually lost property value because of the newly sparse terrain. It is up to the government and insurance companies to change their policies to reward fireproofing, not discourage it, Gedalof said.
There are also high-tech solutions homeowners can take, such as putting sprinklers on their roofs that go off when there is a fire to keep things damp, Longcore said, but those come with their own costs and provisions.
There are obstacles to being more prepared in the future, though.
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Some common beliefs, such as that prescribed burns, where forest management burns an area on purpose and in a controlled manner when it is prone to a fire, actually aren’t that helpful for certain places in California.
“The Thomas Fire last year took out structures right next to areas that had prescribed burns,” Longcore said. “It’s not the way out of this.”
Longcore says there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the natural ecosystem in California that leads to errors, such as the vegetation being chaparral, a kind of shrub, rather than forests.
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“Prescribed burns in chaparral don’t save lives when extreme events come,” he said.
“At the state level, many think it is about controlling the vegetation and not changing the infrastructure,” Longcore said. “There’s always a desire to not concentrate on the hard things that would make a difference.
“Instead, they demonize the vegetation. We have a long way to go to combat ignorance at the policy level.”
For example, rather than create a grant program to help people afford fire-resistant roofs, the government may say to keep 200 feet between your house and any vegetation, Longcore said.