For 37 years, I was a firefighter. The worst fires in our history are occurring now.
In the wildland-urban interface, where the forest meets cities, we are suffering increasing losses and working harder with less success. Fires are getting bigger. Damages are increasing. Fire budgets are at an all-time high, yet fires destroy greater numbers of homes and critical infrastructure than ever before.
These so-called “WUI” fires are not simply forest fires. Nor are they urban fires; they lie in between.
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Wildland-urban interface fires don’t just burn forests. They destroy lives, infrastructure, businesses and homes. The arguments about forest fires and increased timberland management fall short. They primarily burn the oak, woodland and chaparral on our urban fringes, and leave disastrous socioeconomic impacts. We urgently need to understand this phenomenon to understand our future, but what is California doing?
Conversations on this issue are occurring within silos. Firefighters talk to firefighters, scientists to scientists, advocates to people of like mind. We are like a group of people standing on railroad tracks about to be hit by a train, arguing about whether the train carries freight or passengers and who’s the engineer, while some of us deny it exists at all.
Keep arguing or denying without taking action and in a while it won’t matter.
California needs to convene fire agencies, land use planners, foresters, fire protection engineers, land owners, developers, utilities, insurers, policy makers, scientists, and other stakeholders, and take a holistic look at this problem. With billions spent for firefighting, minimal state and federal funding is allocated for engagement or researching our path forward. The proposed federal budget cuts even that.
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has a proposal to establish a fire institute focusing on the wildland-urban interface. I believe it’s a good idea, there or elsewhere in California.
We need a holistic, systems-based approach to this problem, ideally at a university or lab, that will help us get off the tracks and take action. There is no time to spare.
Dan Turner is a retired Cal Fire chief and manager of the San Luis Obispo County Fire Safe Council. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.