The Face of Fire Under Climate Change

With the climate crisis worsening the frequency and severity of wildfires, communities are feeling the pain—and the cost.

California’s Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire in the state’s history, started as a small 600-square-foot fire. Within a week, the blaze covered roughly 100,000 acres. Evacuations were ordered, and more than 10,000 people would ultimately be affected.

Climate change and mismanaged forests have created a perfect recipe for megafires to blossom and consume massive tracts of the landscape.

On July 24, the small community of Indian Falls was wiped out. Ten days later, the town of Greenville was burned to the ground in less than one hour. The fire wasn’t fully contained until 104 days later, when a storm dropped record levels of rain. 

“There’s no way,” Brandi Cedillos recalls thinking as the Dixie Fire began to grow. “They’re going to stop it before it gets to any town.” She never considered the possibility of her hometown burning, let alone that Dixie would become California’s largest single wildfire.

In October of this year, I met Cedillos outside of her house in downtown Greenville, where she’s lived for eighteen years. Long, twisted planks of charred sheet metal, what was once the roof, blanketed the remains of her home. The smell of a burnt town still lingered in the air. It had been nearly two months since the fire came through Greenville.

The Dixie Fire would go on to engulf 963,309 acres of land—about the size of the entire state of Rhode Island—before reaching full containment. Climate change and mismanaged forests have created a perfect recipe for megafires to blossom and consume massive tracts of the landscape.

Climate change is shifting the weather, often in ways not easily understood or comprehended. Through a century of mismanaged forests, worsening droughts, and increasing global temperatures, what remains certain is that wildfires across the landscape will continue burning at greater intensity.

As of the end of October, there have been almost 50,000 fires that have burned across the country this year, charring more than six and a half million acres. Notably, seventeen of the twenty largest fires in the country have all occurred in the twenty-first century. 

“Because of both logging and fire suppression, we now have forests that are characterized by a very high density of small trees,” explains U.S. Forest Service ecologist Kyle Merriam. These smaller trees have contributed to more acres burning at greater intensity.

“We found that areas that burn in high severity in the first fire generate an outrageous number of snags,” Merriam says. A snag is a dead tree left standing upright to decompose naturally. Snags, which eventually fall to the ground, become fuel for the next fire. 

“The Dixie Fire burned like nothing most of us have ever experienced before,” says U.S. Plumas National Forest fire manager Ryan Bauer. “In a year like this, where there’s very little moisture in the fuels to begin with, [the combustion] process is almost instantaneous.”  

Cedillos was working from home the day the fire came through Greenville. She and her family were first evacuated on July 22, and they were allowed to return to Greenville two days later. But come July 26, they were evacuated once again. Experiencing multiple evacuations and being allowed to return back home each time gave Cedillos and her family a false sense that the fire was under control.

Towns like Greenville exist in what is known as the wildland urban interface. This is where houses and vegetation meet, and it’s one of the more challenging areas in which to suppress a wildfire. As wildfires continue to burn through small forest communities, they are becoming more destructive and more costly. About one in three homes across the country exists in this interface, placing a large number of people at risk of losing their homes. 

There are steps homeowners and communities can take to help reduce the risk. Establishing a wide breadth of defensible space between the forest and any structures is a key step. Another solution is “home hardening,” or using non-flammable materials for construction. Metal roofs and stone or concrete fences are great methods to slow the progress of a fast moving fire. While these steps must be taken by the property owner, the biggest tool available to reduce the risk of a wildfire is actually fire itself. 

The Dixie Fire tore through the majority of the Plumas National Forest and Plumas County, leaving behind a small strip following the Highway 70 corridor. To protect this remaining swath of forest land from burning in the future, Bauer and Merriam believe that the use of controlled burning is the most powerful tool we have.

“It’s not a matter of if,” says Merriam. “It’s a matter of when those places are going to burn.”

“Because of climate change, we’re seeing a lot of species have a hard time germinating and surviving after a large high-severity fire,” Merriam says. “Because of the recent droughts that we’ve had and just long-term increasing temperatures and dryness, places where trees were still able to survive are not necessarily places where a seedling can do well.”

This story was originally published here for The Progressive.

Copyright Richard Bednarski
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