On Wednesday, Staff Writer Phoebe Lu attended a discussion between Professor Lisa Dale and The Tricentennial Project, where she learned about the challenges of managing wildfires in the American West.

It’s human nature to be afraid of fire. Wildfires, in particular, constitute a formidable threat to those living in the American West, especially as a devastating season of wildfires ravaged California last year. However, though they are destructive, wildfires are also an inevitable and necessary part of our ecosystem. To further examine the complexities of these fires, the Tricentennial Project, an undergraduate group that organizes discussions on climate change, hosted a talk with Professor Lisa Dale of the Columbia Earth Institute this Wednesday. Their discussion with Professor Dale explored how through wildfire management, we can learn to coexist with wildfires despite our fears. As the number of wildfires grows with our changing climate, Professor Dale’s discussion offers a timely exploration of how to cope with this new reality. 

1 in 3 Americans live in what’s called a Wildland-urban interface, which is a region where nature intersects with human settlement. In these interfaces, nature’s processes conflict with human safety. Wildfires, for example, are crucial in renewing and protecting the ecosystem but also pose a serious threat to nearby residents. Because residents in the American West live in houses in close vicinity of wildland, a wildfire can quickly spread to human settlements. Large scale fires can burn down houses and even take lives while smaller scale fires still pose risk of air pollution and property damage. With the population in the West steadily growing, Professor Dale warns that “the scale of the risk is increasing.” 

Professor Dale makes it clear that preventing wildfires is not an attainable goal, as wildfires are both inevitable and necessary to the ecosystem. Still, residents can take steps to reduce the risk from these fires. Through cutting down surrounding trees or stacking flammable materials far from their property, residents in the Wildland-urban interface can defend themselves. Such precautions define a “defensible space”: a space designed to minimize the damage from wildfire. Those in the West frequently receive pamphlets with images of this space, advising them to implement precautions in their home. However, there are no state or federal laws that mandate these precautions. Furthermore, these precautions are often expensive and very technical, making it inaccessible to some residents. Thus, while such precautions are beneficial, there’s a lack of collective action in implementing them.

Along with creating “defensible space,” residents can also cope with wildfires through purchasing home insurance. Not only can insurance compensate homeowners from fire damages, Professor Dale also proposed that insurance can also incentivize homeowners to take additional precautions; many insurance companies promise a lower premium if homeowners add wildfire precautions around their home. As the saved cost from the lower premium normally outweighs the price of these precautions, homeowners become much more likely to implement a “defensible space.” However, Professor Dale also points out that home insurance for wildfires operates at a “moral hazard”: the cheap prices for home insurance enables more people to move to the West, thus shielding them from recognizing the real risk of living with potential wildfires. 

The issue of expenses also plagues regional land managers. To mitigate wildfire risks, land managers perform mechanical treatments, where they cut down trees in areas with dense forestry. However, as timber has gradually lost value in the marketplace, land managers can no longer sell the trees they cut down and make a profit. According to Professor Dale, these land managers now have to “pay somebody to come cut down trees that have no value,”  making these mechanical treatments extraordinarily expensive. 

Prescribed fires present a much less expensive option compared to mechanical treatments. Through dripping fuel around a set perimeter and igniting a fire, we can scorch away flammable materials in wildlands and reduce the risk of a future catastrophic wildfire. Though prescribed fires are both ecologically beneficial and effective in protecting human safety, this method is not widely accepted by residents. Prescribed fires can lead to decreased air quality and also may escape, causing another wildfire. Thus, local residents remain hesitant towards this method. Furthermore, Professor Dale labels the method to be “counterintuitive,” as it uses fire to combat fire, making it hard for prescribed fires to be widely accepted and understood in the public. 

As the West consists of a mix of private and federal lands, the federal government also plays a role in defending against wildfires. Frequently called the “US Fire Service”, the United States Forest Service is the branch in the government responsible for managing fires in the wildlands. Issues of expenses not only affect private citizens, but also restrain the USFS in their efforts. “The USFS has a fire-borrowing problem,” Professor Dale states. Due to budget shortages, the USFS has to borrow money from their forest health budget in order to fight against wildfires. However, Professor Dale explains that this borrowing creates a vicious cycle: without adequate attention to forest health, wildfires become more prevalent.

The threat from wildfires is only increasing as the Wildland-urban interface grows. Despite this growing threat, our current wildfire policy still leaves many gaps in adequately addressing the issue. Shortages of funding, for example, make it difficult for poorly resourced communities and non-federally backed landowners to make satisfactory fire precautions. Furthermore, with a lack of personnel to fight the fires, states like California have also begun to employ incarcerated individuals in fighting wildfires. These individuals are usually paid very little while performing life-threatening tasks, raising human rights concerns. 

There’s much more nuance to this seemingly typical “man vs. nature” narrative. Challenges in funding and in allocating resources make certain communities less able to defend against nature than others. In discussing how to live with fire, we must also recognize the socio-economic differences of residents in the areas most affected by wildfires. The issue of wildfires is as much an effort to address the challenges of nature as it is to deal with these differences in our society. Concluding her discussion, Professor Dale made it clear that we can only effectively reduce risk for wildfires through inspiring collective action, where all residents can access and take necessary precautions.

Forest fire via flikr