Putting Out The Fire, Part One: Can We Learn To Live With Fire?

Aug 26, 2015

A home destroyed by the Angora Fire, in South Lake Tahoe, surrounded by green trees.
Credit J. Michael Johnson, National Park Service

Wildfires in the West are getting larger and more intense every year. Right now, 66 large fires are burning in 11 western states, consuming more than a million and a half acres. California and Nevada rank in the top 10 most wildfire-prone states in the country. This week our series Putting Out the Fire examines innovative approaches to fighting and preventing fire. In our first story, we look at some new thinking around fire, and ideas for protecting your home. 

More and more people now live in what geographers call the “wildland-urban interface” zone. While that term may conjure up images of log cabins in the woods, the reality is that these areas are increasingly suburban. In the West, almost half of all housing units are in the wildland-urban interface. 

“The hundreds and sometimes thousands of houses destroyed during any particular wildfire aren’t houses scattered in the woods. They tend to be houses that are in suburbs, not homes directly embedded into the wildland," says Jack Cohen, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Over several years of studying fire damage, he’s found a consistent theme. “What we found were totally destroyed houses surrounded by green trees.”

That means our understanding of fire is flawed.

“Our perception that a ball of fire comes rolling through a neighborhood leaving it to waste is not what’s happening because that would have consumed the trees,” Cohen says.

He adds that we also tend to mistakenly equate the heat required to destroy a home with that required to burn a human.

“What gives us pain and injury from that heat is significantly less than what it takes to ignite wood, or even char it."

The general belief that all fires are intense enough to set our homes ablaze has led to a no-tolerance policy toward fire that Cohen says has paradoxically made wildfire season worse. Instead of allowing a number of low-intensity fires to burn off a good number of trees as seedlings, we’ve all but eliminated such fires. That allows more trees to grow taller, creating a large and connected tree canopy that helps fire spread.

“We’re working against ourselves," Cohen says.

There’s growing consensus around the need to understand that not all fires are created equal. At this week’s Lake Tahoe Summit, California Governor Jerry Brown threw his support behind the idea, saying: “We gotta fight fires smarter, we gotta take care of our forests more intelligently.”

Fire inspectors in the area, including Patrick Olson, are already moving down that path. Olson works with Cal Fire in Truckee and Tahoe to ensure that residents are doing a good job of clearing out flammable materials within 100 feet of their homes. That means getting pine needles out of gutters, pruning trees, and ensuring that no trees are within 10 feet of your roof. Olson also recommends that people clear any dead vegetation off the ground near their home.

“Mainly dead grass, leaves and needles. That seems to be the main thing up here, so we ask that you clear that," Olson says. "And then if you’ve got live ground cover like plants and bushes, we ask you to space those out.”

Driveways, utility easements, stone walls and non-flammable paths can also help to stop a fire in its tracks. And Olson stresses that inspectors are here to help.

“We’re here to work with people, educate, help them, not slap citations on them," he says.

Meanwhile, Cohen says people also need to learn to live with fire.

“It would be a really good idea if we’d get a bit more comfortable or at least understand the reality of fire occurrence," he says.

The federal government has spent an average of $3.4 billion annually to fight fires in recent years, three times what they spent in the 90s. Cohen says that cost could be reduced if we can all learn to embrace the idea of some fire being good.