Hundreds of small fires were burning in the northern Rocky Mountains late in the summer of 1910, stretching the resources of the newly created national Forest Service.
Then the hurricane-force winds picked up.
The fires spread, burned over 3 million acres, torched small towns, and killed at least 85 people.
The Big Blowup, as it became known, was a defining moment in the history of wildland firefighting in the U.S. It branded the Forest Service’s leaders, who were “determined it will never happen again,” said Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University fire historian.
For more than 50 years after the Big Blowup, the country turned its back on the “light burning” practices Native Americans had used for centuries to tame the land.
Instead, the Forest Service went all in on fighting all wildfires hard and extinguishing them fast. In the 1930s, the “10 a.m. policy” directed firefighters to extinguish all fires within a day.
The result: decades of deferred fires on land that is meant to burn has left much of the nation’s forests — and much of the west coast — with a biomass backlog of fuel ready to explode.
As the west coast burns in fires that have torched over 3.4 million acres in California and about a million acres in Oregon, President Donald Trump has seized on this history to point at poor forest management — “and other things, but forest management” — as the root cause.
Democrats and most mainstream media have not surprisingly focused on climate change as the primary force behind the deadly fires to the exclusion of any detailed analysis of the forest-management failures that led to the fires — failures which can presumably be addressed on a more short-term basis than climate change itself.
A news article in the New York Times deemed the fires a “climate reckoning” that reflected poorly on the Trump administration’s environmental regulation policies. On ABC’s This Week, Washington governor Jay Inslee said “these are not just wildfires, these are climate fires.”
Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti told CNN that Californians are “insulted” by Trump’s forest-management talk, and called his administration “the last vestiges of the Flat Earth Society.”
But away from the politics, there is general consensus among wildland fire experts that both sides have a point — flawed forest management and climate change are at play.
Decades of treating fire as an unwanted evil and suppressing fires at all cost have left many of the nation’s forests unnaturally overgrown and littered with dead trees, limbs, and needles that can easily ignite with a spark or a lightning strike. And all of this is exacerbated by a warming climate that further dries those fuels and leads to a more combustible environment.
Focusing on the polarity — forest management or climate change — “is good for polarizing partisans,” Pyne said, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the problem.
“What I find when people get to that stage is that they’re really not talking about fire,” he said. “They’re using fire to promote some other agenda. And they wind up proposing things that don’t really speak to fire. Fire doesn’t care.
“At that point, it’s just wasted words and motions.”
Built to burn
Fire behavior is a factor of weather, topography, and fuels. And with its Mediterranean climate, hilly terrain, and heavy winds, California is built to burn, sometimes explosively.
Before the 20th century, wildfires burned millions of acres in California every year on average because people couldn’t do much to stop it, said Craig Clements, a meteorology professor and director of San Jose State University’s new Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center.
“Climate change has a fingerprint on this for sure,” Clements said of this year’s West Coast fires, but he added, “climate change isn’t the only reason we have fires, and you can’t blame any individual fire on climate change.”
Clements pointed to an almost perfect confluence of factors behind this year’s fires: A record-breaking heatwave in August, followed by a lightning event, followed by heavy winds.
If it had all happened a month earlier, or in a different order, there may have been a different story, more in line with California’s 2019 fire season.
“No one is talking about 2019. No one is talking about it. It was a dead year last year,” he said.
Timothy Ingalsbee, a wildland firefighter and executive director of the Eugene, Oregon-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, said “the science is pretty clear there’s no single cause of what’s going on,” though he sees climate change as the primary driver.
“It’s why we’ve seen so many big fires on land simultaneously,” he said. “But it’s also an issue of forest management. Not the lack of forest management, but the legacy of forest management.”
Ingalsbee said the nation’s history of fighting all fires and trying to exclude fire from the environment has caused problems in some forests.
“They’re thick with dead and downed limbs and needles and small trees that would have been recycled in the soil if we had allowed fires to burn or made them burn,” he said.
He is also critical of industrial tree farms that have removed big fire-resilient trees from the forests and replaced them with fast-growing and fast-burning conifers.
Julie Parrish, a former four-term state representative in Oregon and founding board member of the pro-lumber Timber Unity Association, pins the blame for the fires ravaging her state primarily on a combination of political indifference and failed leadership.
In a Washington Post opinion article, she said the state has prioritized recreation, ecotourism, and the concerns of environmentalists over good forest-management practices that benefit the people who live and work in the forests.
She said she doesn’t deny that climate change is a factor behind this year’s fires, but she described it as “the final piece of the puzzle.”
“It’s a piece of it,” she said. “It’s just not all of it.”
‘We can do that’
In the 1960s and ’70s, after more than 50 years of trying to suppress fire on public land, the National Park Service and the Forest Service both reversed course to again used prescribed fire and controlled burns as land-management tools.
Pyne, the Arizona State wildfire historian, said the results have largely been disappointing. Some states, primarily in the southeast, have used controlled burns successfully, but others, including California, have fallen behind.
“California, it doesn’t matter where you start the story or where you try to have it go, it ends up with (fire) suppression,” he said.
As California has grown, and more homes have been built in the wildland-urban interface, there’s been more pressure on fire agencies to extinguish fires rather than let them burn.
And some environmental lobbying groups have put pressure on lawmakers to stop controlled burns in forests to protect wildlife.
“Whether it’s climate change or whether it’s not climate change, how stupid is it to leave this tinder there to just create infernos?” asked John Cox, the 2018 Republican nominee for governor in California, who now heads the nonprofit Change-CA.
California has about 20 million acres of land that needs active management, said Nick Goulette, executive director of the California-based Watershed Research and Training Center. Working on a 20-year cycle, land managers need to burn about a million acres a year, he said.
Cal Fire, the state’s forestry and fire protection service, tries to burn about 20,000 acres every year. The Forest Service and private land owners burn more, but far less than needed.
Goulette said the state could benefit from doing a better job managing rather than immediately extinguishing fires that start naturally, particularly early or late in the season, or in places that don’t threaten communities.
“It’s easy to put fires out when conditions are moderate,” he said. “And so we have a tendency to want to put all those fires out. And we’re really successful.”
In mid-August, California governor Gavin Newsom and the U.S. Forest Service chief signed a memorandum of understanding that calls for, among other things, scaling up “vegetation treatment to one million acres of forest and wildlands annually by 2025.” The federal government owns more than half of California’s forest land. Some wildfire-management experts are skeptical the MOU will lead to significant change.
That followed a 2018 bill signed by former governor Jerry Brown that called for spending $1 billion over five years to thin the state’s forests.
Addressing climate change will likely take decades, but there are other things that can be done now to better protect people and their homes, including improving electrical utility systems.
“We can keep powerlines from starting fires,” Pyne said. “I mean, that’s ridiculous that we haven’t fixed our grid. It needs fixing anyway.”
In 2016, Brown vetoed a bill that that passed the legislature unanimously that would have required the state’s Public Utilities Commission and Cal Fire to prioritize the removal of trees that threatened overhead electrical lines and equipment. Brown said the legislation was redundant.
Ingalsbee suggests focusing on making homes and buildings more fire resilient, particularly their roofs. Houses are often more flammable than the forest, he said.
“It takes a rare and extreme event to get a big tree on fire, but it takes just the tiniest ember to get a house on fire,” he said.
“All of our policymakers are at fault with just talking about forest fires and preventing forest fires, when that is not humanly possible or desirable. But we can prevent house fires and wildfires that transition into urban fires. We can do that.”
Pyne said West Coast states don’t have a fire problem. Rather, they have many fire problems.
“The point is to separate them out, unbundle them, so we can do the stuff we can do,” he said. “Some of the things we’re just going to argue about because they have to do with how we live on the land, and we’re not going to get cultural agreement.”
Efforts to introduce a more sophisticated mix of fire programs in California has been hard, he said.
“I think we’re reaching the point where the fire agencies can no longer stand between California nature and California society and provide a buffer.”