“Are we done with wildfires around here?” a 6th-grade student asked me in 2015 as we sat around a campfire one wet September day and discussed our most recent summer of wildfires. As a fire ecologist for the University of Washington and a full-time resident of a small community in eastern Washington, I hesitated. After suffering through two consecutive wildfire seasons in 2014 and 2015 in which massive wildfires changed the local landscape and consumed homes of some of the kids in the camp, part of me longed to say yes, but I knew better.
As a fire ecologist, I study fire-adapted ecosystems. In many parts of the western United States, fire is not only essential to the survival of many plants and animals, but also inevitable. The native oak woodlands of northern California are an excellent example of fire adaptations. Historically, frequent fires consumed accumulated fuel (fallen leaves, grasses, shrubs, and coarse wood) and maintained light fuel accumulations that generally supported low-intensity surface fires. Some oak trees could be top-killed by fire, but they sprouted vigorously and also regenerated from acorns in the open spaces created by fire. The fire-maintained oak woodlands supported a high diversity of grassland plants, many of which are uncommon or rare today, thanks to less frequent, higher-intensity fires. After decades of fire exclusion in the oak woodlands of northern California, accumulated fuels and vegetation have created conditions for much more intense and damaging fire events.
Even in the age of modern fire suppression, there is no way that we can completely fire-proof landscapes when prolonged drought, strong winds, and ignitions collide. With a rapidly warming climate, the conditions for explosive fire growth are only increasing. At the same time, more and more people are moving out of urban environments to more rural, fire-prone places.
Resilience is defined as the ability of a system to quickly recover from a disturbance. Even though people tend to use language of fires as destructive or catastrophic, the recovery and renewal of vegetation and habitat is often astounding. In the near absence of fire, many landscapes where fire was once a frequent visitor now have heavy accumulations of live and dead vegetation that can contribute to severe wildfire events. Across landscapes, vegetation is also more continuous than it was historically and can facilitate contagious fire spread. Restoration of fire-adapted ecosystems such as oak and pine woodlands involves reducing fuels—including understory plants, dead leaves, and downed wood—(often with prescribed fire) and promoting vegetation that survive or quickly recover following fire.
As communities, we can also can take many steps to become fire adapted. Programs such as FireWise and the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network offer proven ways to reduce fuels around our homes and communities and make structures less likely to burn. Taking lessons from fire-adapted ecosystems, many Firewise practices involve reducing flammable vegetation and fuels around homes to reduce the chance that fire starts and spreads. Building and maintaining homes to be protected from airborne embers is also essential and includes using fire-resistant roofing materials, screening ventilation and crawl spaces, and designing siding, decks, and porches to be less receptive to burning embers.
From neighborhood fuel reduction projects, to building ordinances, to how homes are evaluated for fire insurance, to emergency funding for future firefighting, we must do a better job at preparing for wildfires. Local and state governments should invest in managed fuel breaks around communities (areas with reduced fuels that can assist in fire suppression), emergency alert systems, safe evacuation routes, underground power lines, and communication towers with backup power. Finally, as much of northern California has recently experienced, smoke impacts are serious. Public investments in weathering extended periods of smoke are also needed—from air filtration systems, preparation for increased hospital visitations, to places of safe refuge for smoke-sensitive individuals. The Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network offers training materials for developing community fire adaptation action plans and addresses many of these issues.
After pausing to consider the 6th grader’s question, I answered honestly: In fire-prone ecosystems, it isn’t a question of if fire returns, but when and how. The campers and I then got to work clearing pine needles and wood from one of their tent areas to learn how to reduce hazardous fuels around their homes. For all of us, adapting to fire will reap dividends as we face upcoming wildfire seasons.
Susan Prichard, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.