The 2018 wildfire season has devastated California, burning over 1.6 million acres of land, costing almost $3 billion in damages, and taking dozens of lives. On Nov. 25, the Camp Fire, which was the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in the state’s history, was announced as 100 percent contained.
Jake Brenner is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences and faculty manager of the Ithaca College Natural Lands. He has worked on a wildland fire crew for the U.S. Forest Service in Nebraska and researched potential wildfire impacts in Arizona and Mexico. IC News asked Brenner why there has been an increase in catastrophic fires, what can be done to protect communities from future devastation, and how the environment will be impacted.
IC NEWS: Why were the recent forest fires in California so devastating?
BRENNER: There are three major reasons why the fires in California — like many others in the recent past — have been especially devastating. First is that people are increasingly putting themselves in fire’s way. Suburban and exurban residential development is encroaching on fire-prone ecosystems. In other words, the wildland-urban interface is becoming more densely settled.
Second, the nature of wildfire itself has changed. This owes largely to a century-long policy of fire prevention on federal, state and municipal lands. In a fire-adapted ecosystem, small burns are normal and they occur regularly. By preventing these burns, fuels build up that carry flames from forest floor to canopy. This fuel build-up has changed wildfire dynamics from relatively frequent, but modest, fires on the forest floor to infrequent, but catastrophic, fires in the forest canopy.
Finally, the natural fire dynamics that we have altered are also greatly influenced by climate change. In the American West, this means more frequent, longer and more severe droughts. Microclimatic conditions play a significant role in fire dynamics.
These things — along with several other secondary factors — are working together to overtax society's ability to put out wildfires before they exact high tolls in human life and property.