As smoke from an unprecedented fire season fills the air, fire experts are sounding the alarm that the State of California is on an unsustainable path. Smoke is closing businesses and schools, deteriorating mental and physical health, and exposing a series of failures around forest management and climate change.
Wildfires in California have burned 3.3 million acres, killed at least 25 people and destroyed over 4,200 structures in the past month. In comparison, West Marin has been lucky. The Woodward Fire burned 4,920 acres of unpopulated wilderness in the Point Reyes National Seashore, leading to evacuations and anxiety but no property damage or death. Still, the blaze put the fire threat on full display.
“It’s a telling tale of the challenges that lie ahead,” said Jason Weber, the Marin County Fire chief. “We’ve got 100 years of fuel buildup. Fire suppression and climate change are challenging us… We are really on an unsustainable track across California if we don’t start to change.”
Fire has always been a part of California’s ecology. Sparked by lightning and indigenous people, scientists estimate that millions of acres burned in California prior to 1800, and today’s characterizations of recent wildfire acreage as extreme is a 21st-century perspective. But what has changed is the intensity of wildfire and its impact on communities, as more and more people live in the wildland-urban interface.
A policy of fire suppression can be traced back to 1910, when a series of fires burned 3 million acres in Montana, Idaho and Washington in only two days. The event, called “the Big Blowup,” had a profound effect on firefighting policy, according to the Forest History Society. The United States Forest Service, formed five years prior, pushed forest-fire issues into public discourse, leading to the policy of suppression that still influences fire management today.
Countless dollars have been spent on preventing and suppressing fires in the past century, and new technology, like aircraft support and fire retardant, has only made it easier. Smokey the Bear, with his slogan, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” became the face of the forest service’s suppression campaign.
But while fires have been extinguished, forests have expanded, thickened and often become diseased. In the seashore, bishop pines are infected with a fungus, while live oaks and tanoaks suffer from sudden oak death. Much of the area that burned slowly but intensely in the Woodward Fire had no recorded burn history, so the forest was dense with fuels.
Climate change also exacerbates the problem. Winter storms are stronger and wetter, with rainfall concentrated in atmospheric river events, and summers are hotter and drier. Vegetation grows with abundance then dries out, priming the forest for hot and intense blazes.
Over the past half-decade, suppression has become more difficult. Wildfires are affecting more lives than ever, displacing communities, destroying neighborhoods and costing billions of dollars.
“Mother Nature is mad right now, and basically what we’re seeing is a reset of our environment,” said Mark Brown, a deputy chief with Marin County Fire.
Mr. Brown serves as an operations manager for Cal Fire and is assigned to large fires across the state. When he arrives on a scene, the first thing he asks for is a fire history map, because fires tend to follow patterns based on the terrain. But recently, fires are swiftly filling in old footprints and expanding beyond historical fire breaks. The fire season also lasts about 75 days longer than it used to. Firefighters are outmatched.
Marin has dodged a bullet so far, Mr. Brown said. Last year, the Muir Fire ignited just south of Stinson Beach on a hot and windy day. But the fire burned toward the coast, and it was contained at 58 acres. This year, the Woodward Fire burned in thick fuels that slowed the flames, and the ocean limited the fire’s westward spread. Neither fire ignited near structures.
Given Marin’s fire history, residents should not continue to count on luck. In 1923, a fire burned 40,000 acres of timber and grazing land from Lucas Valley to the Bolinas Ridge in four days, an event that could repeat itself. The fire destroyed four ranches and 30 of 35 houses in Woodacre, sparing the rest of the San Geronimo Valley while soldiers and students were called in to protect Fairfax.
“If it happened before in the past, it’s going to happen again,” Mr. Brown said.
Solutions exist, but they take time, effort and money. The county is relying on the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority, a cross-agency body that is set to raise $200 million in taxes over the next decade for vegetation management, evacuation route clearing, home hardening and other fire safety improvements. The authority will deploy prescribed burns in remote areas and mechanical treatment around homes and along evacuation routes. Defensible space inspectors have been out in force this month, visiting homes and offering advice on keeping them safe.
In the seashore, the National Park Service is still working out a strategy to address its fire danger with limited resources. Efforts are focused around parkland that borders communities; the area that burned in the Woodward Fire was not considered for treatment, fire management officer Greg Jones said.
The park service’s fire management plan, which dates back to 2004, allows for up to 2,000 acres of prescribed burning each year. Yet the park service has burned only 20 acres in the last four years.
Prescribed burns are limited by the availability of resources and sensitivity to concerns about air quality and wildlife. All burns are required to have contingency resources, such as fire trucks on standby, based on a worst-case scenario. During fire season, these resources are hard to obtain.
The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the federally recognized tribe that includes the Coast Miwok, believes it could help guide and fund forest management, possibly in the form of a co-management agreement with the park service. Greg Sarris, the tribal chairman, pointed to Tolay Lake in Petaluma as a model, where the tribe has a co-management agreement with Sonoma County Regional Parks. The tribe helped finance planning and an environmental review to open the park, with the condition that tribal leaders would have a say in what happens there.
“Now more than ever, native tribes need to partner with parks and open space agencies to work together and take care of the land,” Mr. Sarris said. “We would welcome a partnership with the Point Reyes park such that we can begin working together to clear the land, do controlled burning and practice traditional ecological knowledge.”
An agreement would empower the tribe in decision-making, using both old and new science, and in turn the tribe would help fund the work, he said.
The Woodward Fire is not yet 100 percent contained, but the flames are under control thanks to a series of backburns and fire breaks established at the fire’s edge. Smoke from fires to the north is clearing out, so the sun is warming up fuels, and crews are extinguishing the hotspots. Firefighters are also removing dead trees and branches to prevent injuries; about 75 people are dedicated to the fire.
The estimated containment date is Sept. 25, pushed back so firefighters have more time to seek out potential problem areas. The fire in the interior is expected to burn until at least a few inches of rain falls.
Most of the seashore reopened last week, but Limantour Road and trails and campgrounds south to Stewart Trail remain closed.
Meanwhile, the fire season is devastating West Marin’s tourist-serving businesses. Restaurants and shops rely on a bustling summer to save up money for the winter, but the smoke and calls for visitors to stay away are cutting the summer short.
Sheryl Cahill, the owner of two of the three restaurants in Point Reyes Station, said the past month has been the single most detrimental economic event in her 15 years of restaurant ownership. The recession was difficult, but she adjusted. Covid-19 hit hard and fast in March, but a trickle of takeout orders kept the restaurants going until outdoor dining opened.
With the patios open at the Station House Café and the Side Street Kitchen, the restaurants adjusted to the downturn and were generating enough revenue to pay the bills. But the fire and smoke took sales down another 95 percent from already-depressed levels under Covid-19. Winter savings and staff income have suffered.
Business owners are struggling with how to reopen while facing dual disasters. They watch the air quality index day-by-day and open for limited hours when the air is healthy enough.
“The conundrum is that we need the doors and windows open for ventilation because of Covid, but need the doors and windows closed because of the smoke,” said Vicki Leeds, the owner of the Cabaline Country Emporium. “Rents and utilities are due or past due, people need their paychecks, and without patrons, we can’t pay the bills that need to be paid.”