There’s a litany of reasons why nearly 5 million acres have burned so far this year across the United States — three-fifths of the burn scar is in California alone. Fire officials blame everything from lightning to gender reveal parties to climate change.
Perhaps the most present term in news articles as one of the main causes for fires getting so big so fast is fire suppression, which has resulted in a lack of fire for more than a century.
“They're deeply interconnected, but they can't really be disentangled,” said Carly Phillips, a researcher in residence at the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions. “They're interacting and they're also making each other worse. The fuel is drier and easier to ignite as a result of climate change.”
But What Is Fire Suppression?
To explain fire suppression, we have to go back to the year 1910 when 3 million acres burned in the Great Fire across states like Montana and Idaho. There’s no official cause, but a Forest Service explainer said that year was “the driest year in anyone's memory. Snows melted early and the spring rains never came.”
It also suggests that the fires were started by coal-powered trains spewing hot-red cinder into bone-dry forests as well as homesteaders and campers setting fires on accident.
Eighty-six people died in what is called the Big Blowup, which burned millions of trees meant to be logged and changed forest management to the current day.
“As a result the Forest Service put together a policy that all fires should be suppressed as quickly as possible,” said Susie Kocher, a UC system forestry advisor in the Tahoe Region. “It was at a time when the Forest Service had just formed in 1905. And it seemed to match their mission, which was preserving forests for the American people.”
She says shortly after the fire, the Forest Service started the “10 a.m. policy,” requiring fires be put out by 10 a.m. the next day. That policy is no longer in practice. Prior to the colonization of the West Coast, around 4.5 million acres burned in California yearly both naturally and on purpose by Native Americans who had a working relationship with the land.
Removing and displacing Native Amreicans in the early 1900s was also a huge factor in suppressing wildfires, because Indigenous people at that point had more than 8,000 years of history of cultural burning that protected them and the land. That went away when they were torn from their land, said Ecological Historian Jared Dahl Aldern.
“You are removing the people who had a seasonal and multi-year rhythm and relationship with fire,” he said. “That cycle was completely broken.”
Ron Goode, tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono, says there were around 300,000 Native Americans historically who lived across California, and they burned 2% of California annually as a form of protection, food supply and for the health of the ecosystem.
“The land was constantly on fire,” Goode said. “Removal of Native Americans from the land is the result of what we have today.”
Goode says what was removed is the spiritual connection Indigenous people have with the land, which, in part, resulted in the fire suppression we are experiencing more than a century later.
“If you're with an agency, where's the spirituality?” Goode questioned. “You don't hear them singing songs, you don't hear them giving prayers, you don't hear them making offerings. When you're out with the Indians, that's exactly what they do first. They want to make a relationship to the land.”
He says what was revealed by the actions of agencies like the Forest Service is they were “not thinking in terms of how to take care of the land and how to make the land sustainable.”
And then, in the 1920s, this idea of suppressing wildfires grew even more when the agency decided intentional burning was a bad idea. In 1924 a Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor said the ‘“Brushy Hell’ of shrublands must be protected for the benefit of future timberland succession, ‘so leave them alone.’”
“The Forest Service said it ruins forests, it was bad forest management,” said Kocher. “Then in 1924, California followed suit and said it was not legal to burn forests on purpose.”
Kocher says this idea of letting trees grow and not letting forests burn naturally every decade wasn’t this malicious idea either.
“They would have thought, ‘Oh, we're doing this great work where we're leaving all these extra trees for people to use for timber moving forward,’” she said. “I don't think those early foresters ever could have foreseen how fire could get away from them.”
Can California Tackle The Task?
The result of removing fire from the landscape across the west meant a literal buildup of trees — both dead and alive — brush and grasses.
More than a century later fire suppression is still taking place, even though there are efforts to change a mentality of putting fires out. But that’s slowly changing as the pace, scale and astronomical costs of wildfires exponentially grow, says Michael Jones, a UC system forestry advisor for Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma counties
“I think it has been a serious struggle,” he said. “The scope and scale of land management work is still not meeting the scope and scale of fire suppression efforts … We haven't really figured out how to coexist with fire.”
Jones also says part of what makes fire suppression an issue in 2020 is the matrix of jurisdiction across the coastal range, the desert and the Sierra Nevada. In each area are National Forests, National Parks, Bureau of Land Management areas, cities, towns, private land, preserves, reserves, areas that are logged and more than 3 million homes.
“When you think that you can build your house anywhere because some kind of fire suppression agency will come there and put the fire out, it doesn't really create any incentive to create good building practices,” Jones said.
Without unified management Jones says “it creates a very mosaic pattern of land use” with a diversity of conditions that could lead to wildfire.
“It takes a lot of coordination in our thinking as a society to push this message forward that fire suppression hasn't worked and we need to be more proactive and better stewards of the landscape,” he said.
But does California have the tools to dig itself out it’s fire suppression issues? UC Berkeley fire research scientist Brandon Collins believes so. Since the early 2000s, Collins says there has been movement away from just putting fires out.
“Before suppression was the tactic, and now it's all under the umbrella of fire management, which sort of recognizes the role of fire plays in some of these ecosystems … for somewhat beneficial purposes,” he said.
But Collins says there needs to be a breaking point — a shift in funds and resources to combat fires in a huge way in the offseason when the probability of fires getting out of control is low.
“We can only hold it off for so long,” he said. “From a policy standpoint, some of the things are in place. But on the acres side, we're a long way away.”
He says the knowledge and ability to manage fire is all available, but there’s a “weird intersection” of issues including a lack of clear direction from agencies and funding limitations.
“We have to make up for what we've done by eliminating fire,” he said. “We almost have to pay down the debt that we've accrued again. I just think if people think the solution is more engines, more helicopters we're just gonna keep repeating the same problem.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story was missing a quote from Susie Kocher, a UC system forestry advisor in the Tahoe Region. It has been readded.