Monday, August 2, 2021

The good news is I can run it again since nothing has changed. The bad news is I can run it again since nothing has changed -- Mega-fire repost 1


The truth about Western megafires is the narrative no one wants to hear.

Every few years, some journalist will do a solid, deeply reported story on Western megafires. (This Propublica piece by Elizabeth Weil is excellent. I also recall a good series from NPR a while back.) These articles always say basically the same thing about the scientific consensus, the severity of the problem and the steps we need to take. They are always persuasive, always told with a great sense of urgency, and always ignored. This is what happens, at least these days, when a crisis and its solutions break with conventional narratives and  require great political will to address.

The doomed California genre plays both to very real environmental concerns and to a longstanding Eastern schadenfreude, the epicenter of which is located in the editorial offices of the New York Times. The Golden State is supposedly burning for its environmental sins but in reality this is not primarily a climate change story. While increased heat and more severe droughts exacerbate the situation, we would still be having megafires without them.
A seventy-word primer: We dug ourselves into a deep, dangerous fuel imbalance due to one simple fact. We live in a Mediterranean climate that’s designed to burn, and we’ve prevented it from burning anywhere close to enough for well over a hundred years. Now climate change has made it hotter and drier than ever before, and the fire we’ve been forestalling is going to happen, fast, whether we plan for it or not.

Megafires, like the ones that have ripped this week through 1 million acres (so far), will continue to erupt until we’ve flared off our stockpiled fuels. No way around that.
Fires are an essential part of the life cycle of these forests. Controlled burns return the forests to a more normal equilibrium. If we listened to the scientific consensus, they would be the main weapon in our arsenal. Unfortunately science is not the main consideration here.

By comparison, planning a prescribed burn is cumbersome. A wildfire is categorized as an emergency, meaning firefighters pull down hazard pay and can drive a bulldozer into a protected wilderness area where regulations typically prohibit mountain bikes. Planned burns are human-made events and as such need to follow all environmental compliance rules. That includes the Clean Air Act, which limits the emission of PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, from human-caused events. In California, those rules are enforced by CARB, the state’s mighty air resources board, and its local affiliates. “I’ve talked to many prescribed fire managers, particularly in the Sierra Nevada over the years, who’ve told me, ‘Yeah, we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars to get all geared up to do a prescribed burn,’ and then they get shut down.” Maybe there’s too much smog that day from agricultural emissions in the Central Valley, or even too many locals complain that they don’t like smoke. Reforms after the epic 2017 and 2018 fire seasons led to some loosening of the CARB/prescribed fire rules, but we still have a long way to go.

“One thing to keep in mind is that air-quality impacts from prescribed burning are minuscule compared to what you’re experiencing right now,” said Matthew Hurteau, associate professor of biology at University of New Mexico and director of the Earth Systems Ecology Lab, which looks at how climate change will impact forest systems. With prescribed burns, people can plan ahead: get out of town, install a HEPA filter in their house, make a rational plan to live with smoke. Historical accounts of California summers describe months of smoky skies, but as a feature of the landscape, not a bug. Beasley and others argue we need to rethink our ideas of what a healthy California looks like. “We’re used to seeing a thick wall of even-aged trees,” he told me, “and those forests are just as much a relic of fire exclusion as our clear skies.”
In the Southeast which burns more than twice as many acres as California each year — fire is defined as a public good. Burn bosses in California can more easily be held liable than their peers in some other states if the wind comes up and their burn goes awry. At the same time, California burn bosses typically suffer no consequences for deciding not to light. No promotion will be missed, no red flags rise. “There’s always extra political risk to a fire going bad,” Beasley said. “So whenever anything comes up, people say, OK, that’s it. We’re gonna put all the fires out.” For over a month this spring, the U.S. Forest Service canceled all prescribed burns in California, and training for burn bosses, because of COVID-19.
In my more pessimistic moments, I think we are in a post-solution America, a country that talks a better and better game but has lost its taste for actually solving problems. Lately, those pessimistic moments have become more frequent.

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