How can California survive wildfires?

Mike Bebernes

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening

California is burning. In recent weeks, dispatches from across the state have shown the impact of hundreds of fires that have destroyed structures, torched thousands of acres and blackened the sky with smoke. Fear of the blazes has also led to strategic blackouts that have left millions without power.

Fire has always been a part of life in California. But a series of factors have combined to make recent blazes more devastating. Ten of the most destructive fires in the state’s history have happened in the past decade. Things hit new extremes last year with the Camp Fire, which caused 85 deaths and burned more than 150,000 acres.

The forces working in concert to spark and spread wildfires pose an incredible challenge for California. Climate change is bringing higher temperatures and more powerful winds that spread the flames. The state’s electrical grid is aging, and equipment has been linked to sparking some of the wildfires. There are more than 100 million dead trees in the state’s forests that act as tinder for the blazes. Meanwhile, a statewide housing crisis has pushed more residents to build homes in dangerous fire zones.

Why there’s debate

These factors might seem insurmountable, but California has taken a series of measures to curb wildfires, and experts have proposed a variety of bold solutions that could help mitigate future fire seasons.

There’s some evidence that the state’s efforts are already working. Roughly 200,000 acres have burned in 2019. The previous two years saw an average of about 1.6 million acres lost. A lot of that drop-off can be attributed to favorable weather conditions, but experts say the state’s strategies, like utilizing new technology, staging firefighters in high-risk areas, and clearing firebreaks in the forests, are having an impact.

One of the more popular long-term remedies proposed is making the state’s electrical grid safer by fortifying Pacific Gas & Electric’s power lines, creating local “microgrids” fueled by alternative energy sources and even having the state government take control. Other potential ways to curb the damage of fires include banning or limiting building in high-risk areas, conducting controlled burns of vulnerable forests, making changes in forest maintenance strategies and improving evacuation procedures.

—AR produced by Henry Keyser and Rebecca Corey

What’s next

Before California can implement any large-scale fire protection projects, it will have to get through this year’s fire season. Recently released forecasts suggest the state’s rainy season might come later than usual, meaning high-risk fire weather could last through December.


Californians need to accept personal responsibility for fire prevention and preparedness

“Fire is a fact of life in California, and we all have a responsibility to expand our individual and collective resiliency to it.” — Ana María Ruiz, Mercury News

The state should help people move out of high-risk areas

“Cities and state agencies are talking about managed retreat — or relocating threatened homes — from communities facing coastal erosion or flooding. Why is there not a similar policy discussion in areas that repeatedly burn?” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

California should protect old-growth forests with larger trees

“Having bigger trees and a more complex fuel structure, associated with a natural regenerating forest, will have lower fire severity.” — Forestry expert Harold Zald to San Francisco Chronicle

New technology can make firefighting efforts more effective

“California has battled some of its biggest wildfires this year with a new weapon: a plane outfitted with infrared sensors that can see through smoke to plot the blazes’ perimeters and transmit the coordinates to firefighters in real-time.” — Erin Ailworth, Wall Street Journal

Improved evacuation strategies can limit loss of life

“As the nation’s most populous state adjusts to what could be years of record wildfires, cities, businesses and residents are acclimating to a new punishing regimen that will reshape life in California. ... The new evacuation strategies are a sign of how California, strung between the dueling risks of fires and rolling power outages, is adapting to a new reality many officials attribute to climate change.” — Washington Post

Tree trimming to protect power lines needs to be calculated and controlled

“While PG&E is under pressure to chop trees to protect a power grid that has sparked some of California’s most catastrophic wildfires, critics say the work is not only environmentally harmful but counterproductive. ... The trimmed trees may reduce the fire risk this year or next, they say, but the widespread slicing and dicing could take a long-term toll on the health of the forest. And an unhealthy forest is ultimately more likely to burn.” — Kurtis Alexander, San Francisco Chronicle

A decentralized electrical grid will limit fires sparked by power lines

“In a nutshell, it is accelerating the evolution from a centralized, top-down, long-distance, one-way energy system to a more decentralized, bottom-up, local, networked system. In the energy world, this is summed up as a more distributed energy system. It puts more power, both electrical and political, in local hands.” — David Roberts, Vox

Electricity should be a state-run utility

“PG&E is such a disaster that there is essentially no alternative to government stepping in; let it be done in a clear, simple, and fair fashion.” — Ryan Cooper, the Week

Controlled burns can eliminate fire-prone forests safely

“Experts say state and federal firefighting agencies should allow more fires that don’t threaten the public to run their natural course. What’s more, they say fire agencies should conduct more ‘prescribed’ burns — fires that are deliberately set, under carefully controlled conditions, to reduce the fuels that can feed a disaster.” — Sacramento Bee

Promoting affordable housing would limit building in risky parts of the state

One solution to the state’s twin problems is to build more dense housing in urban areas: An aggressive infill-building push would lower rental prices and shift the state’s population to less fire-prone areas, as well as help reduce carbon emissions. ... In the meantime, California isn’t doing enough to discourage building in fire-prone areas.” — Annie Lowrey, the Atlantic

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP/Getty Images