With every wildfire, there’s an understandable urge to focus attention and blame on the particular source of ignition, the smoldering cigarette or forgotten campfire that sparked off the conflagration. Surely, we tell ourselves, if it weren’t for some idiot, some irresponsible corporate utility, some freakish lightning storm, we wouldn’t be having all of these dang wildfires. There’s got to be a villain, someone at whom we can point the finger.
These explanations share a large dose of wishful thinking, an effort to make the complex simple, the monstrously difficult conquerable. The reality is it doesn’t especially matter what caused these wildfires. Smokey Bear left generations of Americans with an outsize sense of individual responsibility: It was never true, as he famously said, that only you can prevent forest fires. Forests catch on fire as surely as rain falls from clouds and rivers run to the sea. When we spend too much time and energy trying to assign blame, we lose track of why these fires are so bad.
Natural causes such as lightning are among the most common sources of wildfire ignition, federal research indicates. Wildfires can, of course, also start from a teenager playing with fireworks, a careless smoker littering, gun enthusiasts shooting firearms near dry brush, a pickup truck backfiring, a tourist train chugging along in the mountains. Fire officials can’t prevent every source of ignition, all the time. Even the notion they should try to do so stems from the old, discredited idea that forests should never burn. It’s long past time to stop thinking of wildfires as occasional, isolated disasters that can be prevented through individual behavior.
Wildfires sparked by human activity and dramatically worsened by climate change are a permanent emergency we’ll be dealing with for the rest of our lives. We need to act like it. In a drying, superheated climate, we need to focus on preparation, mitigation and education over the unrealistic notion of prevention. Making wildfires events we can live with — quite literally, disasters we can survive — must be the goal.
As we’ve learned here in Oregon, the obstacles are serious, and the politics are complex and difficult.
A wildfire council convened by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) forwarded a weighty set of recommendations to state leaders last year. It was a sapling of political will, an attempt to get serious about the conflagrations that have too often threatened our state and its people. But Republican legislators uprooted it in March when they walked out over climate legislation, depriving the legislature of a quorum and felling Democrats’ entire agenda, including a $25 million wildfire bill.
To be clear, Republicans aren’t to blame for the devastation visited upon Oregon towns like Detroit, Phoenix and Talent. More than two centuries of global industrial air pollution, one century of forest mismanagement and decades of inaction on climate change got us here. There are no easy solutions, but some measures can help.
It shouldn’t be so difficult to say yes to reasonable steps like promoting defensible space around homes, requiring utilities to make their equipment safer and creating a wildfire risk map — all recommendations from the state council. But when we focus on the smaller, immediate causes of individual fires — rather than the broader failings that have made them so bad — it’s that much easier to pretend we don’t need larger, structural solutions.
Acknowledging that fires are an inevitable part of our life in the West would mean taking steps to handle and ameliorate them. The news cameras may love dramatic water drops from huge airplanes, but it’s overwhelmingly the grunts on the ground with combi tools and chain saws who encircle wildfires and stop their advance. We need more of them. To that end, we shouldn’t rely on inmates to fight fires for a few dollars a day. Western states like Oregon, and the federal agencies that manage much of the Western United States, must step up more robust permanent, professional wildfire fighting teams.
We’d also benefit from better land management. Naturally occurring fires must be allowed to burn where they don’t threaten lives and homes. Controlled burns — closely managed preventive fires — can preempt and reduce the severity of wildfires, even if they’re also politically unpalatable, typically causing a flood of confused 911 calls and angering nearby residents. Forest thinning can also make sense in some places. When President Trump clumsily suggested to California, “You got to clean your floors, you got to clean your forests,” he was widely ridiculed. But there’s a pine needle of truth in what he said. We could be doing much more to keep fires from getting worse, and that starts with looking after forests before they alight.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t hold irresponsible parties accountable. But accountability for a few changes nothing. The reality is we cannot stop forests from catching on fire. Preventing ignition is the last, desperate tactic of responsible wildfire policy. If that’s where you’re at, it’s too late.