“Today fire is widely accepted as a tool for land management in the Southeast,” said Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at the University of California, Merced.
With rare exceptions, however, the practice remains infrequent in the West. California intentionally burned just 50,000 acres in 2017. In August, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a memorandum with the Forest Service and others recognizing that the state needs more preventive fire, saying “California’s forests naturally adapted to low-intensity fire, nature’s preferred management tool.”
But the scale is daunting: One study found that the state would need to burn or treat 20 million acres to counteract the legacy of fire suppression. (Researchers have estimated that in prehistoric times, around 4 to 12 million acres in the state burned each year, but that has since dropped precipitously.)
The obstacles to using fire this way are considerable: Fire agencies worry about intentional fires raging out of control, as happened in New Mexico in 2000, when a prescribed burn caught by high winds ended up destroying 435 homes. And the smoke can be a concern for nearby communities.
Using prescribed fire as a tool to manage forests will take concerted effort and a cultural shift in acceptance of fire, experts said. Dr. Kolden noted that many Indigenous communities have a long history of using fire to manage the landscape. “We should be empowering the people who know how to do this,” she said.
Finally, there’s climate change. Much of the fire-prone American West is expected to become even warmer and drier in coming decades, said Park Williams, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. In a paper last year, Dr. Williams and colleagues noted that the effects of climate change on California’s fires so far “have arisen from what may someday be viewed as a relatively small amount of warming.”
The effect of climate change on wildfires isn’t linear but exponential, he said, and the climate will respond slowly even to aggressive action to combat warming. Therefore, any lack of strong action on climate will yield far worse wildfires.
“Things could be bad, or really bad, by 2050,” he said.