Future Tense

Fueling the Fire

Trump thinks logging will stop the burning in California. It won’t.

On the left, a fire burns by power lines, and on the left, fire burns structures.
On the left is the Camp Fire in Big Bend, California, and on the right the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images and David McNew/Getty Images

On Saturday morning, Donald Trump tweeted about the wildfires currently burning in both Northern and Southern California:

It’s not very clear what he’s talking about, but we can hazard a guess. His administration, through its secretaries of agriculture and the interior, seems to equate “forest management” with logging. If that is what Trump is saying—that California has fires because it hasn’t removed enough trees—the tweet is written either in ignorance or misdirection. Logging is more often a cause of fires than a cure. Besides, the current California fires are not even in forests.

So is there anything to the argument that differently managing the land would affect fire? That’s complicated.

Begin with fire. While we imagine (and model) landscape fire behavior as a physical event, unlike floods and hurricanes, it is a creation of the living world. Tornadoes and tsunamis can occur without a particle of life present; fire cannot. It literally feeds on biomass, behaving more like a plague of locusts than an ice storm. We can’t control the surface ocean that powers hurricanes or the shifting crustal plates that cause earthquakes. We can, within limits, modify the energy source of fire.

Controlling fuel is fundamental to any strategy of fire management. It’s what wildland firefighters do when they build fire lines—a sort of waterless moat around a fire—by removing a strip of vegetation. Depending on the flames, a fire line might be the width of a shovel or as wide as a football field. If the fire is spreading by embers riding winds like the Santa Ana, the fire might burn until it reaches the Pacific Ocean. Big wildland fires are contained by burning out swathes of fuel in advance of the oncoming flames. That’s one of many differences between wildland and urban fire. (We no longer dynamite or torch city blocks to deprive fire of fuel, as used to happen as late as 1906 when San Francisco burned.)

Likewise, fire management at a landscape scale aims to control the character of fire by altering the conditions under which it burns, which in practical terms means addressing the fuels it feeds on. We can’t level mountains, banish winds, or stop all ignitions. But we can modify the vegetation by how we live on the land. We can add fuels, we can reduce fuels, we can rearrange fuels.

We’ve done all that, sometimes deliberately, often without much attention to how fire will read the result. Every region, every subregion, has its own story of fire reorganized by its history of land use. California’s fires are as monumental as its mountains and winds, and tweaking the vegetation can work only on the margins, though it’s on those margins where people live.

Controlling combustibles is a major reason we halted the routine conflagration of cities that afflicted America’s cities up to a century ago. Until then, towns burned as often as the surrounding countryside since both were made of the same materials and experienced the same drought and winds. In principle, a similar logic might apply to our rural and wild landscapes if we could agree on what we wanted and how to achieve it. Proper tinkering, many observers think, might allow us to promote the good fires we want and prevent the bad fires we don’t.

For members of the Trump administration, this reasoning leads to “forest management,” which they seem to equate with chain saws. They argue that big-tree logging can be a benign (and profitable) surrogate for fire. But while all fuel is biomass, not all biomass is available as fuel. What fire wants is particles with a lot of surface relative to mass; it wants what a campfire or hearth fire wants. If you wish a fire to flash and roar, put in pine needles, dry grass, and kindling. Add a freshly cut green log and the fire will go out.

Which is to say, logging and burning do different things. Logging physically removes biomass; fire chemically changes it. Logging takes the big stuff and leaves the little; fire burns the little stuff and leaves the big. After a crown fire—a fire that flashes through a forest canopy—what remains are the tree trunks that logging would have hauled off. Removing them earlier would have lathered the land with post-cut debris called slash—exactly the kind of volatile fuel that fire favors. Slash disposal, in turn, typically means burning it, which has its own hazards for escape fires and which fills the sky with noxious smoke. Up until recent decades, the great conflagrations of American history have, with almost preternatural cunning, trailed logging and land-clearing. This is a country that is good at startups, not so great at cleaning up after itself. But that doesn’t mean some kinds of active management can’t work.

Where fires are crashing into towns, the real fuel is the built environment. Aerial photos of savaged suburbs tend to show incinerated structures and still-standing trees. The vegetation is adapted to fire; the houses aren’t. Once multiple structures begin to burn, the local fire services are overwhelmed and the fire spreads from building to building. This is the kind of urban conflagration Americans thought they had banished in the early 20th century. It’s like watching measles or polio return. Clearly, the critical reforms must target our houses and towns and revaccinate them against today’s fire threats. The National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise program shows how to harden houses and create defensible space without nuking the scene into asphalt or dirt.

Too often, whether we’re talking about politics or fire management, the discussion ends up in absolutes. We leave the land to nature, we strip it, or we convert it to built landscapes. We have either the wild or the wrecked. In fact, there are lots of options available, and they will work best as cocktails. There is a place for prescribed burning, for prescribed grazing, for prescribed thinning (a kind of woody weeding), for prescribed chipping and masticating by machines, for greenbelting—crafting swathes of low-fuel land use like recreational parks or even golf courses—and, in select sites, for prescribed logging. Most treatments should concentrate where people and high-value assets are at risk—exurbs, suburbs, municipal watersheds. Elsewhere, in wildlands, some kind of managed fire will likely prove the most usable means, and in the West, hybrid practices—half suppression, half prescribed burn—are becoming common.

Too often the extremes command attention: the threat of bad fires to cities, the need to restore good fire in wilderness. It’s the intermediate buffer lands that offer an alternative. Here are occasions for active management, not to serve crude commodity production but to enhance ecological goods and services. The Nature Conservancy has pioneered many models of how to engage such landscapes and the societies around them with all the tools of modern society in ways that both create jobs and promote landscape integrity and resilience. This does not, however, seem to be what the Trump administration has in mind.

California is a special case. It’s a place that nature built to burn, often explosively. If people vanished, fires would still thrive, and they would here and there rush down the foothills like avalanches and storm to the sea. But people have worsened the scene. They have introduced flammable grasses, overgrazed in the mountains and felled forests in ways that overturned the prior system of ecological checks and balances, suppressed good fires as well as bad, and erected towns in what might be regarded as the fire equivalent of flood plains. And then Earth’s keystone species for fire decided to burn fossil biomass, which has cascaded effects throughout the planet and unhinged the climate. We used to think fire history was a subset of climate history; now climate history is becoming a subset of fire history.

We have to tweak our presence in ways that won’t worsen the firescape, that nudge both city and countryside toward greater resilience, that fire can understand—because it isn’t listening to our rants and reading our tweets. Most of all, it doesn’t, really doesn’t, care about our pain.