How to Stop the Wildfires

If we turn the battle against climate change into a culture war, we will all lose.

Two weeks ago, San Francisco residents awoke to an apocalyptic scene. The sky was blood red. A thick shroud of smoke blocked the sun. Toxic ash fell from the sky.

“The day the sun didn’t rise” marked a low point in the ongoing battle with the California wildfires that have killed dozens and displaced thousands. In some heavily populated regions, the air quality index has exceeded 400, far worse than recent measurements in Beijing or New Delhi. Residents have taken to sealing windows, vents and door jambs with masking tape and plastic. Air filters are out of stock and people already struggling to avoid exposure to a deadly microbe suddenly need to avoid exposure to deadly particulates as well.

Headlines have been quick to declare that “This Is Climate Change.” Just as quickly, climate skeptics have challenged the claim. Decades of poor forest management at the behest of environmentalists who oppose logging, they argue, is the real culprit.

Both are partly right. Climate change is making California’s wildfires worse. But California’s forestry policies have massively contributed to the problem.

Climate change has changed how fires burn in California. Tinder dry conditions make forests burn explosively. And because wildfire season is now fifty percent longer than in the past, it increasingly overlaps with the windiest time of year. For these reasons, small fires are much more likely to turn into big fires very quickly.

Yet climate change alone can’t explain the onslaught of catastrophic fires the state has faced in recent years. California’s forest and grassland ecosystems are naturally adapted to fire. But a century of fire suppression has turned the state’s forests into a gigantic fuel bunker. When forests like these don’t burn for decades, they become choked with small trees and dense underbrush. When fires do start, there is much more fuel to burn.

The alternative to burning in many areas is to thin forests, taking out the smaller trees and undergrowth so that there is less fuel and the trees that remain are more resistant to fire. But the state’s powerful environmental lobby has long opposed proposals to thin forests, criticizing them as a lifeline for the state’s failing timber industry.

Finally, suburban and exurban sprawl into the fire zone has exacerbated the problem. Millions of people now live in the middle of California’s forests, making efforts to limit fire risk through thinning, controlled burns, and other methods more complicated and more controversial. 

Ultimately, it is impossible to disentangle the contributions that climate change, forest management, and suburban and exurban sprawl have made to increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfires in California. But while the causes can’t be disentangled, the solutions can.

Ambitious efforts to cut carbon emissions, both in California and globally, have much to recommend them. But saving California from fiery apocalypse is not among them. Until fuel loads are dramatically reduced in California’s forests, catastrophic wildfires will continue to wreak havoc across the state. Solving that problem will require a totally different approach to forest management than what either environmentalists or their critics have long favored.

The environmental community has traditionally advocated letting forests burn, as they did before the arrival of Europeans. But in a state with 39 million residents, many of whom live in close proximity to the fire zone, this is simply unrealistic. Even fires that are far removed from population centers create enormous public health risks. The fire responsible for San Francisco’s red sky at morning, for example, burned in a largely uninhabited area several hundred miles away. Until fuel loads are reduced sufficiently to transition forests back to less intense natural fire regimes, allowing remote fires to burn themselves out is likely to increase the choking smoke that now regularly settles over the state’s densely populated regions.

Meanwhile, conservatives who insist that the timber industry would, but for onerous environmental regulations, take care of the problem are completely out of touch with the state of the industry, the economics of logging California’s forests, and the reality of what is needed for effective long-term fuel reduction. The state’s remnant timber industry does not remotely have the capacity to thin the state’s forests at the necessary scale. Nor would doing so be economical in many forested regions of the state, as the big trees that pay the bills are largely gone. Even where logging is economically viable, removing mature trees is frequently counterproductive, since they tend to be replaced by more flammable undergrowth.

Ultimately, neither carbon caps nor subsidies for solar or wind energy will stop California’s wildfires. Resuscitating the timber industry won’t either. Limiting catastrophic wildfires in California will instead require intensive management of the state’s forests at an unprecedented scale. This will require a new, publicly funded forest management industry dedicated not to the extraction of valuable timber for private profit but rather to the removal of low-value underbrush and immature trees for public benefit.

In the rush to find convenient villains, both climate advocates and their opponents avoid harder policy choices. Conservatives insist that forest management, not climate change, is the cause of the problem—but are unwilling to support big spending to actively manage California forests. Environmentalists argue that climate change “changes everything”—but still insist that the solution to climate fueled megafires is to return to the state’s historic fire pattern.

Environmentalists are right that, over the long-term, we need to cut carbon emissions to something close to zero. And conservatives are also right that, without radical changes to both land use and forest management policy, catastrophic wildfires will continue to plague the state. To engage these issues in good faith, protagonists on both sides of the debate will need to follow their arguments through to their logical conclusions rather than refusing to accept any inference that contradicts their ideological priors. To succeed in addressing either climate change or California’s wildfires, we will need to stop debates about climate change from degenerating into a stale culture war rather than imagining that we might win them.

Ted Nordhaus and Alex Trembath are executive director and deputy director, respectively, of the Breakthrough Institute.