An Abridged History of the California Wildfires

California is ablaze, again. So why is this part of the world so notorious for catching fire?

California is ablaze, again. So why is this part of the world so notorious for catching fire? (Image Credit: Daria Devyatkina, CC BY 2.0)

Recently, I was looking for skiable snow in central Norway when I bumped into a chatty Norwegian man. When I told him I was Californian, he asked why my state was always on fire. The story demanded vocabulary beyond my grasp of the language, so this story is for your benefit, my random friendly Norwegian. This is a story of resource mismanagement, of urbanization, Pocahontas, and a policy that was a bear’s favor.

The Problem with Smokey the Bear

Anybody who has ventured to the Wild West has seen Smokey the Bear (only YOU can prevent forest fires!). He is an American icon, first created during World War II when America was seeking to preserve wood, a critical resource. He also represents the first policy to partially explain why California suffers from such intense burns (also he dabbled in racism). Following World War II, the US officially followed a policy of fire suppression going so far as spraying chemicals from airplanes over great swaths of land (later, we’d figure out dumping lots of chemicals on people was not such a great idea).

The Ticking Time Bomb

Now, stopping fires sounds good right? Shouldn’t forests be left undisturbed to grow into lush stands of Douglas fir and Spruce, free of fire scars? Short term, sure, stopping a fire stops your house burning down. But long term, well, it is a bit more complicated than that. To understand why we have to go back in time, to when Native Americans had free range over America. If you’ve seen Disney’s ‘Pocahontas,’ you know that Native Americans lived harmoniously with the land (and were great singers). This is not really the truth, though (reading up on the ‘noble savage’ concept reveals how deep and dirty this stereotype of Native Americans goes). However humans have always managed the land they lived on, throughout the world. In the western US, this included burning the landscape. People used fire to clear land, send signals to nearby tribes, and alter vegetation types. So, since people were doing this for thousands of years the land co-evolved with frequent burning. Trees needed burning to reproduce, and light needy plants needed burning to create clearings. Burning created a mosaic landscape, diverse and healthy.

Some plants, like this coffeeberry species, germinate instantly after fire, helping to create a healthy, heterogenous landscape

Some plants, like this coffeeberry species, germinate instantly after fire, helping to create a healthy, heterogenous landscape (Image Credit: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0

Following fire suppression, the landscape became dominated by plants that could live in crowded forests and live in the shadow of older trees. Forest stands became more homogeneous and denser. Fires that once cleared woody debris and mass no longer ‘cleaned’ the understory, leading to a buildup of fuel. While people moved West and built cities in the twentieth century, the forests quietly became a bonfire just waiting for a match. Then, in the 2000s, a drought took hold of California. This meant the landscape dried and it took as little as a smoker or a stray match to start a wildfire. Strong wind or lightning strikes could also ignite fires that consumed the landscape.

In Norway, it is hard to imagine the scales of these fires. In 2008, I remember going to take a shower and finding that having left my window open, the tub had filled with ash. At school, we were not allowed to play any sports outside. The sun was obscured by smoke, making the light red and the air was heavy with ash. This was from the area around a freeway catching fire,  around 65 kilometers from where I lived. Monkeys exposed to the smoke from this fire not only experienced reduced lung capacity, but weakened immune responses. In humans, the development of asthma has been linked to exposure to the particulates found in the air after these big fires.

I don’t live in California. That’s not my problem.

This is something that is easy to see as another US problem, like Trump. But this is by no means a local problem. South-east Australia already sees bushfire season as a regularity. The length of fire seasons are extending everywhere as global climate change leads to more intense weather patterns. This last summer, Trondheim in central Norway experienced record temperatures and you can find fire scars on trees as close to home as Bymarka, not 20km from the town. I doubt Norway will catch fire the way California has, but it still serves as a cautionary tale of how misunderstanding what makes a landscape healthy coupled with ignoring early signs of a problem (hotter fires, climate change…) can have devastating consequences.

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