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We can’t just run away from wildfires

The risks of massive wildfires are growing, but we have tools to curb them.

A woman talks on her phone while stopped in heavy traffic on Hwy 50 as people evacuate ahead of the Caldor Fire on August 30, 2021, in South Lake Tahoe, California.
Residents of South Lake Tahoe, California, were forced to flee as the Caldor Fire approached the city at the end of August.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

It has been yet another breathtaking year for disasters. While Hurricane Ida drenched a path from New Orleans to New York, leaving flooding and power outages in its wake, wildfires forced thousands to evacuate and sent choking smoke across the US.

Such disasters are a fact of life in many parts of the country, and the risks are only growing as human activity continues to warm the planet. For those living in the West within reach of devastating blazes, that raises a difficult question: Should I stay or should I go?

Retreat from dangerous areas may seem like the obvious solution to people watching from afar. Why stay in the crosshairs of deadly fires?

The reality is a lot more complicated, because pulling back from high-risk areas brings its own problems. “Managed retreat, relocation, that’s one of the tools in the tool-kit, and it’s a tool that has a lot of potential social costs,” said Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, a social scientist at the RAND Corporation who studies disasters.

If people do decide to pull up stakes, they will have a hard time finding refuge: Just about every part of the US is going to face impacts from climate change, be it extreme rainfall, storm surges, or life-threatening heat.

“There is no place that has zero exposure to natural disasters,” said Crystal Kolden, an assistant professor studying wildfires at the University of California Merced.

A growing number of experts want people to rethink what it means to prepare for the worst, focusing on the ways that wildfires in the West can be managed and controlled over time, rather than simply extinguishing them as fast as possible. Ancient tactics like prescribed burns and new methods such as fire-resistant materials have already proven effective at reducing risks, but they remain woefully underused over the vast swaths of the country that risk going up in flames.

Neither retreating nor holding one’s ground against climate disasters is an easy option. However, as more individuals face this difficult decision, Americans should be ready to share the burden. Many disasters worsened by climate change are unavoidable, but local, state, and national leaders can begin taking steps to reduce harms and prevent natural phenomena like wildfires from turning into calamities.

Wildfire risks are massive and growing, but we know how to manage them

There are at least 4.5 million properties in the United States at “high to extreme risk” from wildfire, according a 2019 analysis by Verisk, a risk-assessment firm. More than 2 million are in California alone.

The gargantuan Dixie Fire burning north of Lake Tahoe and closing in on 1 million acres in size has destroyed more than 1,300 structures so far. The 216,000-acre Caldor Fire has already burned more than 990 structures. In 2020’s record-setting US fire season, almost 10,500 structures went up in flames.

Many more people are at risk. In California, more than 11 million residents — about a quarter of the state’s population — live in high-risk fire zones. More people are settling in fire-prone areas even as the specter of more devastating wildfires looms, thanks in part to decades of poor land management, encroachment on wildlands, and climate change. Fires are not only more common along the wildland-urban interface, they’re also more damaging to people and property.

At its core, the problem of massive wildfires stems, paradoxically, from not enough regular fires. Many ecosystems across the United States, but particularly in the West, evolved to cope with fires at regular intervals. Without fires, landscapes can become overgrown with shrubs, grasses, and trees, providing an overwhelming amount of fuel for when hot, dry weather settles in. When a blaze inevitably ignites, the resulting fires burn faster, hotter, and over a wider area than periodic fires, posing a greater hazard.

Yet Indigenous people for millennia not only lived alongside fire, they also harnessed it for cultural practices such as maintaining trails, growing food crops, and harvesting materials. That means there is a precedent for thriving in fire-prone areas. Many of these practices were halted and natural fires suppressed for generations, but bringing back cultural fire mediation methods and conducting prescribed burns can help reduce the danger.

Other tactics include forest thinning, where small-diameter trees that tend to burn more readily are cut down from an area, leaving behind larger, more fire-resistant trees. In communities, building a defensible perimeter around structures by removing flammable vegetation can also limit blazes.

As for buildings, codes that mandate fire-resistant materials and design can help ensure homes don’t go up in flames when embers land on rooftops.

Together, these measures don’t just reduce the risk of the blazes, they also change the nature of the fires themselves. These tactics remove many ingredients of devastating wildfires, as well as making fires that do occur less intense, burning through grasses and shrubs in the understory rather than tearing through forest canopies. Lower-intensity fires also tend to produce less smoke, mitigating one of the most dangerous health effects of major blazes.

Over the long term, decisions about where to build new structures should account for where regular fires are needed. And slowing climate change can help prevent many contributors to wildfires from continually getting worse.

What would it take — and cost — to put these tactics into action?

While many fire-mitigation tactics are effective, they’re not cheap. It takes a lot of manual labor to thin forests, conduct burns, and cut fire breaks, and they must be applied over a massive area that crosses federal, state, and private jurisdictions. The US Forest Service estimates that it costs about $1,000 per acre to lessen fire risk. The agency reports that 80 million acres of federal land are overdue for fire-mitigation work. That’s greater than the acreage of Arizona.

Some regions have decided to invest in wildfire risk reduction on their own. Many towns around Lake Tahoe have implemented a fuel-reduction strategy for years as a step toward becoming a fire-adapted community. The plan has included measures such as prescribed burning and removing certain trees, as well as a public messaging campaign to teach homeowners about building a fire-resistant perimeter around their homes and how to properly evacuate should a fire pose a threat.

When the Caldor Fire approached, defensive measures around communities like South Lake Tahoe bought time for people to evacuate. “South Lake Tahoe had done an enormous amount of work on all sides over the last 10 to 15 years, and that has really made a difference,” said Kolden, the wildfire expert at UC Merced. “It actually modified the fire behavior to the point where the firefighters have been able to keep it out of the community and protect the homes.” Many residents were allowed to return home a few days later, when the evacuation orders were downgraded to warnings.

Not every community at risk of wildfires can afford to mitigate them on their own. There have been efforts to build the costs of these risks into property insurance rates, but local governments don’t have much appetite for mandating fire insurance or covering some of the costs of risk reduction in areas that face frequent blazes. A 2019 poll of Californians found just 36 percent of respondents supported requiring wildfire insurance.

To close this gap, wildfire risk management should be a public endeavor, Kolden said, akin to the investments made to prevent damage from earthquakes. States like California have invested millions of dollars over decades to make structures more resilient to tremors, even though major earthquakes are rare events. “We need to have that same level of public investment in mitigation for wildfires,” Kolden said. “When wildfires burn communities, we all bear the cost.”

The idea is that if taxpayers collectively cover the up-front costs of preventing the worst fires by building perimeters and fireproofing, they can avoid the much larger costs of devastating, uncontrolled blazes that displace thousands and turn the sky red. By one 2010 estimate, every dollar invested in mitigating wildfire risk yields $35 in benefits.

Earlier this year, California announced more than $500 million for wildfire prevention efforts. The state also reached an agreement with the US Forest Service to conduct fire-mitigation treatment across 1 million acres in the state per year. But statewide, wildfire fuel reduction has actually declined, and California is falling short of its goals. A tangle of legal red tape and unclear authority over these plans has added more hurdles. So risk-reduction plans can lose steam even with money and targets in place.

Retreat may still be necessary in some cases, but it’s not a simple or easy solution

As climate change escalates, it may become too costly or dangerous to live in certain areas, even with some of the most aggressive interventions. That may be the case not only for areas contending with sea-level rise and coastal flooding, but also some fire-prone regions.

To deal with this, some experts are calling for more investment to deliberately move people away from danger. This strategy is called managed retreat, and in some cases it means leaving behind homes, businesses, and infrastructure. Retreat, much like building resilience, depends on collective actions that can make the choice easier and less expensive.

“It’s important to keep in mind that spontaneous, unplanned retreat is already taking place all over the world, as people make individual decisions to move away from threatened areas,” researchers Katharine J. Mach from the University of Miami and A.R. Siders from the University of Delaware wrote in the New York Times. “The question is not whether we want retreat to happen. It’s whether we want it to happen in this ad hoc fashion, which can lead to neighborhoods in decline, homes abandoned and infrastructure degrading.”

But when it comes to retreat, there’s more at stake than property. Many people living in vulnerable areas have strong social and historical ties to their communities. Moving can become an unbearable strain on mental health and financial stability, so it requires buy-in from the people most directly affected.

“The ultimate factor [in] whether we should be pursuing managed retreat is: Do those households and communities want to go?” said Clark-Ginsberg, the social scientist. “If they are reticent, if communities don’t want to move, the literature on relocation shows it causes more harm than good.”

Distancing people from high-risk areas is only one part of the equation. When disasters do strike, it’s equally crucial to help communities recover and aid individuals in resuming their lives.

In a global crisis, no one can escape from every risk or avoid every harm. Rather than trying to eliminate all potential problems, we should prepare to live with them as best we can. “We’ve been stuck in this mindset that we need to separate ourselves from risk,” Clark-Ginsberg said. “In reality, we’re products of the natural world. We’re products of the human world. These worlds contain risk, and we need to figure out how to navigate that.”