The Past, Present, and Future of California Wildfires

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The 2018 wildfire season in California was the deadliest and most destructive on record, burning almost 1.9 million acres—an area 2.5 times the size of Rhode Island and more area than had ever burned in California within the past 50 years. Most scientists, managers, and firefighters would tell you that last year's fire season was not a surprise.

If a fire season like this didn't occur last year, it would have been this year or next year or the year after that. In fact, 15 of the 20 largest fires in California state history have occurred since 2000. The tragic fires of 2018 are part of a broader pattern occurring across the West that shows no sign of abating in the near future unless we make substantial changes. We can surely agree that more needs to be done to limit the impacts of these events.

The 2018 fire season is the culmination of three main factors: climate change, past fire and forest management practices, and development in the wildland urban interface.

The marked increase in greenhouse gases over the past century has increased the average temperature in California by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. This seemingly modest difference has profound impacts on our state. Warmer temperatures are extending the fire season, meaning that fires are burning earlier in the spring and later into the fall. The fire season in the Sierra Nevada, for example, has doubled in length and is now more than 10 weeks longer than it was three decades ago. Under warmer conditions, the atmosphere also draws more water from the ground. This increase in evaporative demand more readily dries out fuels that can easily ignite.

Exacerbating the effects of climate change on fire is the legacy of past fire and forest management. For thousands of years prior to Euro-American settlement, Native American tribes and lightning fires burned as much as 10 to 12 million acres in California every year, with many areas burning every 10 years or so. These fires were typically more benign, burning more often but at lower intensities. The federal government's focus on fire suppression has resulted in denser forests with more continuous fuel to burn in an intense fire. These conditions are quite common around and within most communities.

15 of the 20 largest fires in California state history have occurred since 2000

Finally, the population of California has grown rapidly over the past 75 years, increasing the risk of devastating wildfires. More homes are being built within or near wildlands and constructed with materials that can often burn easily.

Forestry major Tenaya Wood, president of HSU's Student Association for Fire Ecology club, works a fire line. Wood and other students from the club joined representatives from various organizations for the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange on Yurok land in the Klamath Mountains last year. The program teaches participants how to use controlled burns to manage land.

These are daunting and often human-driven factors that we can reverse with effective policies and sufficient resources.

One thing that seems particularly evident is that fire can be a great unifier. An example of this is the growing support for expanding the use of prescribed fire, or controlled burning, which was once a common way of managing California ecosystems. In fact, one might say there has been a prescribed fire renaissance over the past decade as more people return to this practice to help reduce fuels, restore ecosystems, and protect communities. The Western Klamath Restoration Partnership is also manifesting a positive trajectory by embodying an “all hands, all lands” perspective to encourage private and public partners to solve some of these challenging problems together.

It will be up to future managers, scientists, and homeowners to solve these fire challenges. Thus, it is imperative to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and ability to tackle this problem.

Humboldt State University's Forestry program works toward this goal through education, experience, and exposure to research related to the science and management of fire-prone ecosystems.

Forestry Professor Jeffrey Kane (far right) and his students observe fire behavior in HSU's fire lab.

The program focuses on fire ecology, fire behavior, and fuels management to address current and future problems in California. Students use our indoor fire lab to burn fuels and research fire behavior. This active learning experience reinforces concepts learned in the classroom.

However, learning concepts and science necessary to inform appropriate management responses related to fire is not enough. That's why we're working with local partners, including Native American tribes, to provide students real-life experiences with wildland fire and fuels. For instance, students have participated in the prescribed fire training exchange program, also known as TREX, in the Klamath Mountains. Last year, 10 HSU students worked with the Yurok Tribe to bring fire back to ancestral tribal territory and to revitalize this once widespread management practice.

Students are investigating the long-term effectiveness of fuel treatments in the lower elevation shrublands and woodlands of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, which burned in the 2018 Carr fire. Students are also researching the use of creative thinning techniques and prescribed burning treatments to reduce drought- and bark beetle-caused tree mortality in the central Sierra Nevada.

Events like those of the 2018 wildfire season tug at the heartstrings. Stories of so many lives and homes lost to fire, pictures of the rubble-strewn foundations, and charred forests can invoke the deepest of sympathies and feelings of loss. These images are powerful and harken the destructive potential of fire.

But fires can be restorative and must be part of the solution. The beauty and natural heritage of this state exist, in part, because of fire, which is an essential component of the California landscape. Many ecosystems have seen either too little, too much, or the wrong kind of fire, and the key is to find better ways humans and fire can coexist.


About the author

Jeffrey Kane is a professor of Forestry at Humboldt State, among the top fire science institutions in the country and one of only three universities that have a fire lab. His areas of research include ecology and management of fire-prone ecosystems.