LOS ANGELES — Nearly a quarter of the United States is at moderate to very high risk from wildfire. And half of those areas are in the western part of the country. In 2020, California wildfires burned over 4.3 million acres — more than double the state’s previous record, according to the United States Forest Service. Many California landscapes are at serious and growing risk from wildfire due to a combination of accumulating fuels, expanding development in fire-prone landscapes, and climate change.
On this week’s “In Focus SoCal,” host Tanya McRae sits down with Glen MacDonald, a geography professor at UCLA, and the director of the White Mountain Research Center, to explain why there have been fewer but larger wildfires across the country and particularly in the western United States.
“Why this is happening is a confluence of factors. We have a build up a fuel. We have ever present ignition sources. Whether it’s lightning — or in California, 90% of the time, it’s human caused ignition. And then we have in California, hot, dry summers. It’s just a perfect recipe for fire. But on top of all of that, overlying all of that, is climate change. We see a significant increase in temperatures from 1980 to the present day.”
MacDonald has written that it might be time to reimagine how we co-exist with wildfires. And that means asking some important questions and planning ahead.
“How do we plan those communities [that are close to wildlands]? How do we situate the development? Do we have routes for people to get out? Can we situate developments in such a way that it decreases vulnerability?” MacDonald adds, “And maybe there are some areas we just shouldn’t be living in. We just shouldn’t put infrastructure in. And we have to look at that. We look at that with flood plains, we look at that on the coastal zone, we look at that in landslide areas. Maybe that’s something we need to explore with fire.”
In January 2022, the U.S. Forest Service launched a massive 10-year strategy to address the wildfire crisis in the places where it poses the most immediate threats to communities — many of which are here in California. The strategy combines a historic investment of congressional funding, with scientific research and planning, into a national effort to treat up to 20 million acres of national forests and grasslands, and 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal and private lands to reduce wildfire risk to communities, infrastructure and natural resources.
“In Focus SoCal” went to San Diego County to look at a few of the projects that the forest service is implementing to make all of that happen here in Southern California. Clint Green, a Division Chief for the U.S. Forest Service, explained why they conduct prescribed burns and even use goats to graze on dry grass, woody brush and shrubs (known as chaparral) that are tinder for large, high-intensity wildfires, and are common in many areas of SoCal.
“Chaparral really only burns one way, and that’s hot. And it’s very, it’s very hard to control. So if you had a wildfire start, and you wanted to let mother nature just take its course, there would be catastrophic damage. You’d have quite a few structured loss. Probably quite a few life loss. So it’s not really an option in Southern California.”
McRae also spoke with Tim Hepburn, the mayor of the city of La Verne, who talked about how the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments has a program known as “Fire Prep San Gabriel Valley” that helps communities to mitigate, prevent and prepare for wildfires in the region.
“Our programs help communities address and prepare for wildfires in the region. And the staff at the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments work with local and county fire departments to provide wildfire prevention, prevention outreach, and also education for communities at risk for wildfire.”
Send us your thoughts to InFocusSoCal@charter.com and watch at 9 a.m. and noon Sunday.