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This wildfire season is nothing short of “catastrophic”—and that’s coming from Julie Cart, a reporter at CalMatters who’s been covering wildfires for more than a decade. Cart lives just outside of Los Angeles, a few miles from the still-growing Bobcat Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains, and she’s ready to evacuate at any moment. “It’s unprecedented,” she says of the wildfires currently ravaging the Western U.S. “There’s no rulebook anymore.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Cart about how Western states are scrambling to keep up with the fires, how the pandemic is making matters worse, and what the U.S. can learn from Australia’s firefighting system. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: How many discrete fire clusters are there in California right now?
Julie Cart: Right now there are 25 “megafires.” And—talk about out of the ordinary—95 percent of the fires in California are human-caused. That could be a cigarette thrown out the window, someone working out on a farm with an angle grinder …
A gender reveal party. It’s so dry and so desiccated, all the trees—you just give them the stink eye and they’re going to combust. It’s just primed for this kind of thing. But the strange thing was a few weeks ago, in just about 36 hours, there were 14,000 lightning strikes, dry strikes, no rain, and that just lit up these three complex fires in Northern California. Kind of surrounded the city of San Francisco, threw a blanket of smoke and ash on it. That is so unexpected, so unpredicted, that these guys are just running, thinking, What’s next?
And part of the issue is that it’s not just California, right? It’s also Oregon. It’s other states. And that taxes the resources even more.
Absolutely. The thing that is probably most acute right now is just people—boots on the ground and aviation and water tenders and all the massive equipment that go into fighting fires. In a normal year—if there’s such a thing—Oregon, Washington, Colorado, even Arizona and Nevada would be kind of ramping down in the mutual aid system that all Western states have: “Hey, look, we’ve got some guys. We’ll help you.” So when things are quiet for you, for your region or your area, you release crews to go help. But that’s not the case this year. The help that California is used to getting when its season starts ramping up, it’s just not coming because they can’t send people. Or they call crews back. The agency I talked to in Arizona said, “We had a crew on the way to Colorado and we just had to call them back.” They just did a U-ey on a highway and came back because there were more fires unexpectedly in Arizona. So it’s very hard to plan. But that’s one of the problems—it’s just the number of like situations or emergencies, and nobody can really afford to lend you anyone.
You’ve described how every day during fire season there’s this meeting in Boise, Idaho, where folks try to coordinate resources across states.
Yeah. It’s at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. There are many, many firefighting agencies—there’s not a single federal one. So the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Park Service, they all get together in a room that looks like a lecture hall in college. They get weather reports, they get incident reports, they triage, they say, “OK, what’s going on around the country? What’s the top priority?” And to the chagrin of many people, California is often the top priority because of the risks involved and the potential for these fires if they get away. So they have this call every morning. There are people calling in and then there’s folks in the room and then they deploy resources. The night before, they plan for the next day, provided all hell hasn’t broken loose—and all hell is breaking loose, so they throw things out all the time.
How is all of this intersecting with the pandemic too?
So, if my family evacuated, where are we going? Nobody in a pandemic wants to go to a shelter because of social distancing issues. You spent months and months staying in your home or in your family group, and now you’re thrown in with a thousand people in a high school gymnasium—that’s not gonna work. So there’s that issue: When you ask people or order people to evacuate, where are they going? What are you providing?
There is a huge concern for the firefighters themselves, who may have been working in a rural community where they’ve had no pandemic exposure whatsoever, and now they’re thrown in the middle of the suburbs of San Francisco or Los Angeles. Australian firefighters who traditionally come here in our summer, and Californian and other fire companies go there in our winter, they have very serious quarantine issues, so that’s difficult.
Some experts in fire management have complained that in the Pacific Northwest, officials fight too many fires instead of letting them burn out, which can clear the landscape. This year, because of COVID, firefighters are redoubling their efforts to extinguish all the fires, despite the shortage of workers.
There was a memo last month from the National Forest Service to the firefighting service saying it’s imperative because of the coronavirus that we get on these fires early and attack them aggressively to limit the exposure of the crews to the virus.
So they’re actually trying to put out more fires faster so that they don’t have them in the field as long.
I’m wondering what we can learn from Australia and how Australia manages their fires differently than we do.
There’s a lot that we share with Australia in Southern California, more than the rest of the Pacific states. We have some of the same plants. We have some of the same kind of weather and to some degree climate. But where they veer off is taking a very, very hard-nosed approach to things. There was a horrific firestorm one year that created this policy called “leave early or stay and defend.” What they found was that by far the majority of people who were killed during firefights were killed fleeing the fire. They died in their cars. They died abandoning their cars on the road. And they realized that in fast-moving fires your home is actually a safe place to be. Fire is going to come. You’re gonna have this intense minute or two of incredible heat and the roar of a fire, things are going to explode, and then it’s going to move on. And so people were told: If things are bad, get out now. Otherwise, we can’t help you. You’re going to stay home. So this is where the tough love comes from. Australians, particularly in the fire-prone areas in the Outback, don’t expect help. They don’t expect the firetruck to come up their driveway. They are prepared. They’re trained. They have the right equipment. And they have some sense of what it’s going to be like.
Australia was leading the world in this, the idea of training people to defend their homes. And that’s very appealing to a lot of Americans who say, “I’m going to stand on my roof with the garden hose.” It doesn’t work like that. You have to understand the science of it, the fire behavior of it, and your situation. You just can’t suddenly be empowered to do this. You need that training.
Since then, [Australia has] changed that policy somewhat. They have added a category that says: Get out now. No one can stand in front of this fire. Do not stay. A mandatory evacuation order even for people who have training. They say, It’s too catastrophic. We will not stand in front of a fire like that, as professional firefighters, so you can’t.
Because the fires have gotten so extreme.
Are there any simple solutions to the fire problem?
Everything that a researcher or scientist or firefighter will tell you should be done has to be passed through the lens of what’s politically acceptable. One of the things that needs to happen in California is thinning the forests or burning off, when there’s that very small window of doing controlled burns. That means that people have to accept trees burning in January, February, and March. They don’t like that. It scares them. Fire bad. You know, it’s a reptilian response to things. It destroys the air quality. Some of these controlled burns can take two years to plan.
I talked to a crew in Northern California. They planned a controlled burn, a very small one, to protect a community. They planned it, they advertised it, everyone knew, they started the fire—and everyone called their county supervisor and started screaming bloody murder. “Your smoke is destroying my son’s birthday party.” And so they had to stop it.
I read your reporting from 2008. You won a Pulitzer for it. Some of the solutions you were talking about then are the same solutions we’re talking about now, and it feels like the ball just hasn’t moved forward—but the fire certainly has. Does that just drive you nuts?
Well, more importantly, it drives the people who are trying to solve the problem nuts because they keep shouting—and sometimes they’re only shouting a very small piece of it. But it’s a very complex thing. There’s not any one response that’s correct. Part of it is trying to express the extent of it, the cost of it, the societal costs—it goes on and on. And part of it is just the fatigue, time after time—because nature wins. This is going to continue. We could cut down our forests and still have fire because we have chaparral, we have grasses, and in many ways those are the worst fires because they move so quickly. So we will have to live with it.