August 1, 2015

I recently read on Redheaded Blackbelt that Mike Minton, interagency fire management officer said “This is an unprecedented fire event that is happening on this forest, and forests throughout California. It’s eclipsing any fire event we’ve had before, even the 2008 fires.”

Reading this quote immediately took me back to the fires of 2008. It was the 25th year of my life and I had just made the biggest decision of my life: I had purchased some land and was starting to build my home. The day before the solstice we watched the thunderheads build up, towering in the sky as they climbed over the King Range National Conservation Area. The clouds stormed away in every direction, leaving a trail of several hundred fires burning throughout the state.

For the remainder of the year the Paradise Fire burned just over the hill from home. The air was smoky, thick and heavy. Though this fire was small—about 900 acres—the steep and rugged terrain increased the complexity of containing the flames and the cost of suppression skyrocketed to $9,000,000. Airplanes, trucks, bulldozers and helicopters became ever present features of the landscape. I was relieved: fire helicopters meant no law enforcement helicopters. Yet, by the end of the summer my relief had given way to awe as I began to understand of the challenges our state faces with regard to fire.

California was transformed as communities across the state faced the threat and risk of wildfire. Thousands of hard working people worked on public and private lands to protect our communities and the natural resources. Billions of dollars were spent, billions more dollars were lost as valuable forests and ecosystems were destroyed.

At the end of the summer the impact was staggering. The June 2008 fire siege was the single largest wildfire event (1.2 million acres) in California’s recorded history and added significantly to the highest amount of acreage burned in a calendar year (1.6 million) in California’s recorded history.

I grew up in Southern Humboldt County. The 2008 firestorm is the most widespread fire event I remember. But it certainly does not stand alone. Fire has been ubiquitous in my life. Every year there were fires somewhere close by. Some years they were closer than others. Some years they were suppressed quickly. Some years the capacity to suppress the fires was overwhelmed by the scope of the fires and they would burn until the rains came.

One thing I know unequivocally, as a lifelong resident of forested parts of CA, as a former executive director of a watershed restoration council, and as a young professional starting a career in public policy: our forests need active management.

For millennia fire was the most powerful land management tool available to people. Our challenge now is to relearn our relationship with fire, adapt our management strategy to meet modern needs, and—as quickly and comprehensively as possible—restore fire to our watersheds.

As our state mobilizes to address this emergency, the most important thing we can do is support and thank the hardworking people on the frontlines of this disaster. My love and gratitude is with every one of them. I recognize and appreciate the great risk you are taking for the safety of our communities.

As we look forward over the next several weeks, several months, and several years we must prepare our sustained response, because this emergency will not be solved by the courage of the many people risking their safety for the rest of us. California, with wildfire, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Things are way out of balance and catastrophic wildfire is one of the symptoms of the widespread disruption of ecosystems. The sooner we get started restoring fire to landscape, the better our future will be.