Mankind has lived with fire almost forever. We couldn’t live without fire unless we switched to eating only raw food and figured out some other way to keep alive and warm during winter weather. Those illustrations of caveman life found in elementary school textbooks never looked that desirable or comfy. But, as we know all too well, there is good fire and there is really bad fire.
As we rally to recover from the latest wildfires and remain ready and on alert during the remainder of the 2020 California wildfire season, we must also record our newest fire lessons and itemize all the fire questions we still don’t know. The fact that there will be a next time is one of those lessons that keeps getting repeated over and over. Unmistakably, we are living in a Fire Age but it’s not at all like the one started by cavemen.
Our Fire Age is a paradox. We have burned so many fossil fuels that we have overheated our planet and dried out our forests and landscapes. We have changed our climate and lengthened the annual fire season in California. We have moved our houses closer to the fire-prone forests. This requires us to string more electric lines through the wildlands where gusts of wind can ignite a flame. We also have failed to keep our forests and rural surroundings more fire safe with controlled burns and better vegetation management.
We have learned many lessons about how to fight wildfires. We have fire-scoping satellites, ridge top weather cameras, aerial fire suppression battalions and professionally-trained ground attack crews. Our neighborhoods have organized fire and disaster prep committees and communication protocols. These COPEs (Citizens Organizing to Prepare for Emergencies) just led us through both wildfire prep drills and live-time evacuations. Even in times of state and local budget woes, more funds and resources are being redirected to fight wildfires and support recovery and rebuilding.
All those practiced lessons are good, but there will still be a “next time” and it could come as soon as next week or whenever the seasonal Diablo winds return or the next electric line sparks. The people of Sonoma County have lived with the threat of wildfires for a long time. Before the advancement of firefighting equipment and techniques, entire towns such as Geyserville and Guerneville burned multiple times.
But the human-caused changing climate makes everything different. If we didn’t have reason enough before to reduce our use of fossils fuels and greenhouse gas emissions, just reducing the threat of seasonal wildfires should be enough. If we use less good fire, then there could be less bad fire.
Also, we need to change our forest management practices and do more prescribed burns. Maybe Smokey Bear was wrong; maybe we should let some fires burn for a while as we just witnessed with portions of the Walbridge Fire.
We need to update our building codes and require fireproof and fire resistant construction materials and designs. If we insist on living on forested ridge tops and on narrow rural roads in the so-called Wildland-Urban Interface, we must mandate minimum landscape clearances, healthy forest practices, risk management standards and fire-adapted neighborhoods.
We need to require PG&E to harden its grid and be less dependent on emergency power shutoffs. The more solar, battery power and micro-grid improvements we do, the less vulnerable transmission lines and aging equipment we’ll have.
It costs multiple times more money per acre or incident to fight a fire than it does to prevent one. Of all the inhabitants on Earth, only humans use fire. Fire has created the kind of culture and civilization we have. The human timeline is one that begins with a caveman’s fire ring, advances to cultivating forests for fuel, escalates to the use of coal and other fossil fuels and skyrockets to space travel and beyond.
Were we to be destroyed by our own pyrotechnics, we couldn’t say we didn’t see it coming.