A century of poor forest management and unchecked climate change have pushed the West into a “new world of fire,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. Traditional methods of firefighting falter in the face of such huge, unpredictable blazes. Instead, fire experts and environmental groups are hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden will adopt a more scientific approach to the issue, removing fuels from forests and shoring up community defenses to make wildfires less destructive, rather than simply trying to put them out.
Unlike President Trump, who frequently questioned the established science of climate change, Biden drew strong links between global warming and extreme weather during the presidential campaign.
“The fury of climate change is everywhere, all this year and right now,” the then-Democratic nominee said in September, after a particularly catastrophic weather pattern burned about 2 million acres in a single week. “It’s science. And our response should be the same — grounded in science.”
Biden’s $2 trillion plan to address climate change is “an essential enabling condition” to easing the effects of wildfire, said Patrick Gonzalez, a forest ecologist and climate change scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. High temperatures suck moisture from the landscape and prolong the fire season. Research shows that human-caused warming has doubled the amount of land burned in the West since 1984. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which Gonzalez helped write, the number of very large fires in the Southwest could triple if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.
Already, about half of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget — about $1 billion — is earmarked for fire suppression. In bad years, the cost of firefighting has topped $2.5 billion, and the agency has been forced to pull from other programs or tap into emergency disaster funds.
In his clean energy plan released this summer, Biden pledged to use “sound, science-based techniques to thin and sustainably manage our forests, making them more resilient to wildfire.” But he has offered few details about what techniques he has in mind.
A truly “science-based” policy should focus on “proactive fire management,” Gonzalez said. Many western ecosystems depend on regular blazes to clear out debris and create space for new plants to grow. By reducing the amount of potential fuel in the forest, moderate fires can also ease the conditions that lead to massive, uncontrollable burns.
In a memo for the Federation of American Scientists’ Day One Project, which collected dozens of expert proposals for the incoming administration, Gonzalez called on Biden to restore “good fire” to landscapes and devote money saved on firefighting to proactive land management and community protection. For a few hundred million dollars — rather than billion — this approach would reduce catastrophic fire and make ecosystems healthier, Gonzalez said.
Some of this could be achieved through executive action. Biden’s Interior and Agriculture departments could update the 19-year-old Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy to allow for more natural fires and intentional “prescribed burns.”
The nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), a member of Pueblo of Laguna, to be the first Native American interior secretary makes advocates hopeful the agency will expand tribes’ rights to practice cultural burning, an effective land-management tool that has been used by the West’s Native communities for hundreds of years.
The president could strengthen the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s hazard mitigation programs, ensuring more funding to retrofit homes, clear out “defensible space” around communities, and insulate electric and water services from future fires. He also could call on all agencies to consider climate change resilience when they undertake infrastructure projects or issue grants.
This approach has been embraced by Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris. Last year, Harris, then a senator from California, sponsored a bill that would have directed FEMA to establish a $1 billion community wildfire defense grant and require the Forest Service to create a map of wildfire-prone neighborhoods. The bill never made it out of committee, but Kirin Kennedy, deputy legislative director for lands and wildlife at the Sierra Club, hopes it’s a preview of what could come from the Biden-Harris administration. Instead of trying to stop a force of nature, she said, “our focus should be on community protection … measures that can be helpful when the devastation inevitably occurs.”
The reference to forest “thinning” in Biden’s clean energy plan could be contentious. The idea of selectively removing trees from dense forests is appealing, because it can generate logging revenue while avoiding the smoke that comes with managed fires or prescribed burns. But some scientists and many environmental groups argue that thinning and similar “treatments” disrupt the ecology of forests without reducing wildfire severity.
Almost every strategy Biden could adopt will face an uphill political battle. There’s the obvious question of whether his ambitious climate plan can succeed, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate. Efforts to clear forest clutter through thinning or prescribed burns would require significant federal resources, as would programs to make homes and towns more resilient.
One of Biden’s biggest roadblocks might be cultural. As its budget reflects, the Forest Service has long been in large part a firefighting agency. Suppression efforts are understandably viewed as saving communities and protecting valuable timber.
“To change institutions, to put fire back on the land, to change attitudes people have about nature — that won’t be easy,” Wara said.
But it’s what the scientific research calls for, he added. And after Biden campaigned on the promise of heeding scientists, Wara is counting on him to follow through.