What, if anything, can we do to fix it?
This is a complaint about the quoted Clare Frank, not about a SB writer,
> By the end of October 2021, the two fires had incinerated over 1.1 million acres, an equivalent to a two-lane highway stretching over 400,000 miles — a drive around the earth’s circumference more than 16 times.
What a stupid, useless, nonsensical invention of units. I hope Frank is aware at how much this behavior (sorry) torches credibility.
What the end of this makes clear is that we really messed up in 1812 when we failed to successfully invade
I'm from California. Moved to Virginia this past winter. Was darkly interesting in a way to see easterners get a taste of the West, what we deal with every summer.
As for how to address this, I've long believed that the low and mid elevations of the Sierra Nevada (up to around 5,000 feet, maybe 6,000) need to be divided into ~10 zones, and do a massive controlled burn of one zone each summer for the next 10 years or so. That way we can proactively protect homes and towns, firefighters can be staged in areas known to be at risk in the coming burn and we can throw resources at shaping the burn in the way we want. Unfortunately California makes controlled burns almost impossible due to absurd interpretations of clean air law as well as the usual byzantine permitting BS (and it doesn't help that our grandstanding governor, and much of the state, sees any move toward sane forest management as caving to Republicans), but that's just one more speed bump we will have to overcome. I don't see any other way to overcome 120 years of terrible forest management and out of control undergrowth.
Something like half a million people live in the Sierras. I have been one of them in the past. That same year, a massive wildfire burned down an entire county (and for you easterners, a typical western county is 3-5 times the size of an eastern county - this fire burned nearly a million acres). Something has to change, and fast.
Forgive me for being jaded about this, I spent ~6 weeks a couple summers ago working outdoors, 60 hours a week, in AQI ranging from 200 to 500.
Just to note that, if the affected cities/states in the US thought it was useful to clear flammable brush material in Canada, they could partner with the Canadians to pay to have that done - perhaps coupled with a low-wage guest-worker program so it could be done more cost-effectively (or whatever the Canadian immigration authorities were willing to go for).
It seems like by far the most important point of this piece got kinda buried at the bottom, which is that as with so many issues the political right is just nihilist and the political left means well but is doing the wrong thing.
Specifically, as much as climate change is a big deal, this is more of a forest management problem than anything. But I don't see many people saying that or anyone doing anything about it.
When Westerners try to venerate the "wisdom of the ancients," they usually have no clue what they're talking about, but in the case of fire management, we could actually use some. Indian tribes on the West Coast did controlled burns all the time. Supposedly there was almost always a little bit of of smoke in the air, but never a catastrophic amount. There are some of those who work in fire prevention (my uncle is retired Sacramento FD) who advocate for controlled burns, but it looks like there is a bit of a political NIMBY problem here. Nobody is ever going to say "oh yes, today is a good day for a controlled burn 10 miles away from my house." The result is never having any controlled burns, and when fires DO occur, they explode wildly out of control. According to same uncle, the Camp Fire of 2018 had recorded temperatures hotter than anything anybody in his department had ever seen before, so hot the fire can incinerate bone, meaning that it's possible some people who died in that fire will never be found.
There are a few different solutions to this. One is to blow past NIMBYs and have a controlled burn schedule orchestrated by state governments. Another is to have a concerted effort to clear out underbrush. Some of this land is privately owned, so private owners might have to be either incentivized or forced to participate in either controlled burns or clearing of underbrush. Ironically, one more solution might be for the state to privatize more forest land. Hypothetically if one logging company owned enough forest land, they'd have the proper incentive to make sure fires didn't get out of control. That framework would probably still require regulation though, but for a different reason. It would be similar to financial regulation; not there in case the logging companies follow their own interest, but in case they do something STUPID. Hell, it could even be done in a capitalist #landback sort of way; sell the land to tribal corporations.
Just a few ideas. One way or another we can't keep doing what we're doing. As I was discussing with somebody here, can't remember who, summers in the PNW used to be the best in the country. Now they're increasingly scarred by insane heat waves and bad air quality for the second half of the summer. People are still moving here in droves, we shouldn't ruin a good thing.
An opportunity for increased sophistication is in describing fine particulates with an understanding of their chemical lifespans, not merely their size.
Most of what we think of as interesting chemistry happens in the liquid and gas phases, where reactants mix freely and "surface area" isn't really a valid concept. PM2.5 particles are in a funny intermediate state where they are very much solid, but their surface area to volume ratio is wildly out of whack by our regular macroscopic standards.
I'm not that kind of doctor, but particles of this size are going to evolve (in reactivity, in mass, in everything) at different timescales than we're used to, just because they have so many free surface sites available for reaction. I'm not so bold as to say that because I don't have this knowledge, that this knowledge does not exist. I am bold enough to say that if we know more about these particles than just their size and frequency, we do not convey that information very well to the general public.
Tons of trees in california straight up cannot reproduce without moderate levels of fire. Some trees in British columbia do that too, to a lesser extent.
The Inflation Reduction Act did dedicate $2.15 billion to improve forest management, to include expanding thinning operations and controlled burns. Semafor recently did a good video talking about the history of forest management and the changes that are being made in the approach going forward.
For my money, I think we need to do more to discourage building permanent structures in forests. There's not going to be a lot of appetite for allowing both controlled burns (which do rarely become uncontrolled) and small accidental fires to progress naturally as long as people are afraid their homes are going to burn down. Maybe we just need to make people pay a huge fire insurance tax?
Perhaps a dumb question but does the pollution effects of wild fires remain a big problem after they’ve burnt out? Like if you were on a month long vacation and go back to the northeast in July is the air you’re breathing still going to be notably more polluted?
Last week did really suck. I am glad I still got a stock of N95s.
I am dubious that efforts to prevent starting fires will help much in the west. If that 1M acres doesn’t burn this year it’s going to burn sometime in the next 10. If your strategy is ‘not remotely enough controlled burns and limit accidental burns’, you’re just going to get massive accidental burns in a similar volume eventually, regardless of how careful you are
Dumb question, but would allowing increased grazing and/or logging decrease wild-fire risk? Both would seem plausible as methods to decrease available fuel for wildfires. Since both can be done profitably under some circumstances, would this be a more cost-effective way than hiring large numbers of people to clear brush? I read the linked article that dismisses the idea of logging without addressing grazing, but it seems helpless to just say we can’t do anything aside from preventing ignition.
“Appreciation of the deadly nature of particulate pollution is critical to becoming nuclear-pilled because you’ll see that an extremely low-CO2 source of energy is being held to an arbitrarily high safety standard that makes it uneconomical.”
Repeat after me: ALARA is responsible for 10% of cost overruns. ALARA is responsible for 10% of cost overruns.
Really interesting article, although certainly worth highlighting the role and potential for indigenous fire management in this arena.
One related air pollution issue is the continued use of wood-burning stoves, particularly in cities and towns. All those particulates, carbon monoxide, and whatnot, but right on your doorstep all the way through winter.
A few jurisdictions have banned them, or at least banned new installations. Others should, because it’s one of the easiest remaining air pollution wins out there.