High tech isn’t the solution for raging wildfires

Residents in Lower Lake put up signs thanking firefighters battling the Rocky Fire on Aug. 6, 2015.
Residents in Lower Lake put up signs thanking firefighters battling the Rocky Fire on Aug. 6, 2015.

California’s latest outbreak of wildfires is tearing across the landscape, blackening terrain, threatening homes and leaving firefighters reaching for the words to describe it all.

The ongoing Rocky fire, which has consumed nearly 70,000 acres across three counties, has stunned veteran firefighters with its intensity, unpredictable movements and drought-fueled energy. They are just as baffled by the hyperexplosive Jerusalem fire that has already raced through 16,500 parched acres since Sunday. It may merge with the larger Rocky fire, which could create a wind-whipped catastrophe.

However startling these dangerous fires appear and however amazed we are at their ferocity, they are not without precedent. After the 1889 Santiago Canyon fire, which incinerated more than 300,000 acres in Orange and San Diego counties, forester L.A. Barrett declared that “nothing like it occurred in California since the national forests have been administered.”

Although not as large, early 20th-century fires in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles shocked firefighters with their zigzagging speed and the microclimates they generated, disrupting all efforts to suppress them. Later still, the megafire seasons of 2003 and 2007, along with the Station fire of 2009 and the Rim fire of 2013, blew past observers’ estimates of projected ferocity.

Every generation has believed that its experience with wildfires has been unprecedented, and has also placed its faith in technological fixes to solve the “problem.” The creation of the national forest system led its progenitors to declare fire the enemy and to assert that with enough manpower and money, they could snuff it out. Their aspirations, never fully realized, were rebooted after World War II as firefighting agencies deployed surplus airplanes and bulldozers to attack fires large and small. More recently, satellite imagery, fire retardants and drones have joined the firefighting arsenal.

Yet nature has routinely and continuously confounded our high-tech ambitions to control it.

In this age of climate disruption and deepening drought, it is time to recommit to a more resilient approach to wildfire management. That would include increasing funding at all levels to build more defensible landscapes; expanding California’s minimal tax on those living in fire zones to pay for fire-safety education; and boosting budgets so that local, state and federal agencies can spend other dollars on fire prevention.

There is nothing new about these steps, though their urgency is accelerating. That’s because, as firefighters will tell you, managing fire requires managing people – especially those rooted in canyons, foothills and ridgelines. Their growing presence in these beguiling landscapes have created lots of lovely residences that double as more fuel for fires, more structures for firefighters to defend, and thus greater dangers for those who live there and for those who race uphill to protect them.

The sooner we embrace the idea that large wildfires are normal and that their very unpredictability is predictable, the more likely we’ll find a strategy to respond to the dangers they pose.

Char Miller is a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College and the author of “Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy.”