Lessons from California Wildfires

The recent wildfires in California make me feel even more worried about the fate of anyone whose homes are built in the woods.  California has experienced the 9 of the largest fires in its history in the past two decades, but large fires have occurred in many other western states during the same period.

What is going on? Are there too many dense forests due to fire “suppression” as some like President Trump suggest or is something else going on? Keep in mind more than half of all the acreage burned in the West has occurred in non-forest vegetation like chaparral, sagebrush, and grasslands.

Therefore, it’s questionable to suggest if we only thinned the forest we would see fewer large fires.

Furthermore, under extreme fire in weather, you cannot stop a wildfire. There is much anecdotal and scientific evidence for this.  The most severe fires occur in previously logged forests.

For instance, the Camp Fire which destroyed the town of Paradise began in an area which had burned a mere ten years before, and was salvage logged.

What drives massive wildfire is drought (California is in the midst of a thousand-year drought), high temperatures (CA had the warmest summer in 127 years which of course dries out all vegetation), low humidity (at the time of ignition there was extremely low humidity of less than 5 percent), and finally the most significant factor in all large fires is wind.

The wind was pushing the wildfire at a rate of up to 1 football field a second! Indeed, within 12 hours, the fire traveled 17 miles and had burned 55,000 acres! https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/18/us/california-camp-fire-paradise.html?emc=edit_ne_20181119&module=inline&nl=evening-briefing&nlid=60685574_ne_20181119&te=1

Anyone who believes that thinning the forest or prescribed burns would stop a blaze under these conditions is sadly misinformed.

If you see photos of Paradise, one notes that there are many green trees, indicating that the actual wildfire did not enter much of the town. What burned the city down were embers blown on to flammable surfaces of which there were far too many in Paradise. Burning homes put out much higher heat and embers than a forest blaze. With propane tanks and other burnable materials, Paradise burned down house by house in a domino pattern.

What’s going on here? Well first, we are building communities in the fire plain, and like the floodplain of a river, sooner or later, homes will burn.

But the bigger factor as the above statistics about drought, temperature, wind, and so forth reveal is a strong climate/weather signal. With the warming of the Arctic, there is a weaker temperature gradient between the pole and equator. This temperature change causes the Jet Stream to weaken and wobble more resulting in the near rainless fall experienced in California, and a longer “fire season.”

Some suggest this is the “new normal.” It’s the new “Abnormal” because it is entirely due to human burning of fossil fuels and CO2 admission into the atmosphere.

Extreme weather means extreme fire behavior. The idea that we can influence fires by logging the forest is delusional. Beyond the fact that thinning and even prescribed burning can often increase flashy fuels like grass and shrubs that rapidly grow back on such sites, there is the probability factor. Studies have demonstrated the odds of a fire encounter a treated forest stand in the time when it “might” provide some benefits is extremely small-about 1-2%. And the chance that a fire burning under extreme fire weather will encounter a treated stand is many times smaller—well below 0.1%.

The only strategy that has been shown to work most of the time is the reduction of the flammability of homes and community. But these measures must be mandatory. If you put a metal roof on your home or clean needles from your gutter, but your neighbor does not. If the neighbor’s house ignites, your house may still burn.

In the long run, the only measures that will successfully change the “abnormal” conditions are for society to reduce Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

Without such changes, we will see many more Paradise tragedies.



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  1. Carolyn Morris Avatar
    Carolyn Morris

    We need to take into consideration also the overgrazing of the public lands in the western states. The cattle ranchers graze their cattle on theses lands. Sheep also graze these public lands. Then there are the wild Mustangs who the cattle ranchers blame for the overgrazing. It is not the wild Mustangs who are overgrazing the public lands. Not when there are 100 cattle to one horse on these lands. I’m not saying that the wild Mustangs don’t contribute at all to the overgrazing, but we have to look at the big picture. What happens when these public lands are overgrazed is the native grasses are eaten down. Cheatgrass grows back in it’s place. This is the definition of cheatgrass. An invasive species that grows thick—unlike native sagebrush, which grows spotty—which can fuel massive wildfires that destroy their homes. The homes of sage grouse. Cheatgrass fuels wildfires. Cattle and sheep overgrazing these public lands down to nothing is where the problem begins. Get the cattle and sheep OFF our public lands.

  2. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    One of the most ‘not talked about impacts’ to vegetation in the U.S. is geoengineering. The term ‘chemtrails’ have been used to described the application of metallic nano-particles and other chemicals in the upper atmosphere to lessen the effects of solar radiation. Or at least that is the present excuse. Aluminum in very fine particulate form is one of the favorite constituents.

    Aluminum, is generally considered to be toxic to plants , especially in acid soils. It effects the root system and makes the uptake and metabolism of normal plant nutrients ( like H20,K,N,P,Ca and Mg) more difficult. In a sense it makes dry conditions in forest and chaparral habitats even dryer and more combustible. The high altitude delivery system is largely out of sight and mind but it is there, and it has been very consistent for quite a few years.

    Rather than ramble on further about ‘chemtrailing’ one of the best practices to help slow the effects of aluminum deposition in forest areas would be to mandate that all slash in logging operations be left on site. The organic matter in downed limbs and leaves etc. contains zinc compounds which help to compensate for aluminum toxicity. Actually, leaving organic matter on site should be done anyway for good soil health but logging corporations and their cronies in government have re-written the playbook.

    Remember the destruction of the planet by comets etc. makes good copy but it takes the spot light off from corporate greed which is destroying our planet a little at a time.

  3. Steve Roberts Avatar
    Steve Roberts

    No Offense George but I’d rather take advise from a Forester who was educated in forestry than a wildlife biologist. Your info is misleading at best. Truth is, there can be responsible and managed forestry. Let these people do there jobs and You do Yours which I’m sure You’re very good at. A properly managed forest is not impervious to all things, the best we can do is what we have control of, Learn from our past mistakes and keep an open mind and listen to reason.

  4. Mike Roddy Avatar
    Mike Roddy

    George, here is my OpEd in the Paradise Post:


    Your analysis was great as far as it went, but maybe Paradise and similar towns will try building houses out of inert materials next time. Please send me your thoughts directly if you have a chance. You may recall that we met at the SEJ Conference at Stanford about 11 years ago.

  5. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Guess no rakes are being purchased either.


    “Training has been halted for thousands of western firefighters. The U.S. Forest Service can’t award contracts for needed equipment. In forests across the West, no federal employees are doing work to reduce dry “fuel” that feeds catastrophic blazes.”

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner