I woke up an hour later than normal yesterday morning because smoke from northern California’s forest fires had blotted out the sun. My bedroom windows glowed orange. It looked like a scene out of the 1983 made-for-TV movie, “The Day After,” about nuclear war.
I wasn’t the only one creeped out by the apocalyptic hue. “’A Nuclear Winter’ Over Bay Area, as Wildfires Blot Out the Sun,” read a New York Times NYT +0.1% headline. “Without the smoke, it would be a clear day,” noted a scientist. “This is all generated from the fires.”
The same mechanism that caused the orange sky is what could destroy agriculture in the wake of a thermonuclear war: particulate matter from burned wood blocking parts of the light spectrum from reaching the ground.
And yet the air quality wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. “The good thing about it is most of the (smoke) is staying aloft,” the air quality meteorologist for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), said. “The sun is able to scatter those smoke particles that produce this apocalyptic orange color that we’re seeing.”
And while the 2 million acres that have burned in California so far in 2020 is 10 times more area than burned in 2019, it’s still 2 million acres less than the lowest estimate for acres burned within modern state borders annually before Europeans settled in America.
“California was a very smoky place historically,” says Malcolm North of the US Forest Survey.“Even though we’re seeing area burned that is off-the-charts, it’s still probably less than what used to be burned before Europeans arrived.”
Many reporters note that more area has burned this year in California than at any other point in “the modern period,” but that period began in 1950. For the last half of the 20th Century, the annual area burned in California was just 250,000 acres a year, whereas the best-available science suggests 4.4 and 12 million acres burned in California annually before the arrival of Europeans.
“On reflection, anthropogenic burning is higher than what we had for the lower estimate,” said the lead author of that paper, Scott Stevens of UC Berkeley. “You talk to Native American elders and they say they burned oak woodlands every 2-3 years.”
Other scientists were less confident in those annual figures. “I wouldn’t say this happened every year,” said Jon Keeley of the United States Geological Survey. “Our historical fire climate studies show that in California forests some years are cooler and moister and have much less area burned, these fluctuating climates would have occurred in the past.”
The real problem, scientists say, is that today’s mountain forest fires are hotter and kill more trees than many forest fires killed in the past. Is that due to climate change? In part, say scientists.
“Climate dries the [wood] fuels out and extends the fire season from 4-6 months to nearly year-round,” explains North, “but it’s not the cause of the intensity of the fires. The cause of that is fire suppression and the existing debt of wood fuel.”
For most of the last 100 years, Californians suppressed fires in forests, resulting in the accumulation of roughly five times more wood fuel debris than existed in forests before Europeans arrived.
So does that mean the smoke in the air is a function not of area burned, but instead, a function of wood fuel density?
“Yes,” says North. He pointed out that the 2013-2014 Rim fire, which burned 250,000 acres, exposed five times more people to unhealthy air conditions from smoke than it would have if the same area had been burned regularly with smaller “prescribed” fires.
As such, even though the intense heat wave spread fires faster than firefighters could put them out, it’s possible we would have awoken to an orange sky even had the planet’s temperature not risen one-degree Celsius over the last 100 years.
Fires Aren’t New
High temperatures, forest fires, and smoky skies also occurred in California in the nineteenth century. “It’s hot – monstrous hot!” wrote the San Francisco correspondent for the New York Times on September 17, 1860. “An unusual thing for San Francisco.”
On September 2, 1894, the New York Times published an article headlined, “The Cause of the Hazy Air – All Due to the Unusual Prevalence of Forest Fires.” Said a scientist, “Similar conditions have been noticed in the past, notably on the ‘dark day’ in 1781… probably caused by smoke. In 1881 there was another dark day.”
Things seemed apocalyptic back then, too. “In 1781 the smoke was so dense that many persons thought the day of judgment had come.”
While fire suppression has allowed the build-up of wood fuel in California’s mountain forests, such as the Sierra Nevadas, big, hot fires burned in southern California’s chaparral or shrubland forests in 1889, 1919, and 1932, long before fire suppression.
Keeley and his colleagues reviewed 100 newspaper reports from the 19th Century and found that “large, high-intensity wildfires predate modern fire suppression policy” and concluded that “the 1889 Santiago Canyon Fire was the largest fire in California history.”
In 1895, San Francisco was affected by haze from fires. “The bluish haze that brooded everywhere,” noted the Times’ San Francisco correspondent in 1895, “and to many, the trouble was just fog. But it was real smoke that rode in on the winds.”
“California Forests Burned,” reported the Times on September 3, 1899. “Fire Which Started a Week Ago Has Traversed 700,000 Acres and Cannot Be Controlled.”
US government scientists and journalists raised the alarm. In 1899 they claimed that forest fires resulted in “sterilization of the soil…for thirty years.”
The US Forest Service adopted a policy of fire suppression. President Teddy Roosevelt and his Forest Service chief, Gifford Pinchot, drummed up fears of timber scarcity in order to expand federal control over forests and to suppress fires.
A turning point was the Federal government’s effort to battle the Great Fire of 1910, otherwise known as the Big Burn. Over two days in August, fires burned 3 million acres, an area the size of Connecticut, in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and British Columbia.
Like the fires burning in California this year, the Big Burn was started by dry lightning and moved quickly through dried-out forestlands. Seventy-eight firefighters were killed and Pinchot turned them into martyrs for the Forest Service. Congress doubled its budget and expanded its policy of fire suppression.
Public support for fire suppression, including from California’s elites, grew in the 1920s and 1930s after forest fires wiped out 1,000 homes in Berkeley, and burned 60,000 acres in Malibu.
Within half a century, scientists realized that fire suppression was a mistake. “By the 1960s when we realized it was a problem,” said Keeley. “Vast amount of fuels had accumulated for 50 or more years. The fires became far bigger than what could easily be handled.”
Historians agree. “But by putting out every fire,” noted Timothy Egan, who wrote a book on the Big Burn, “they created the greatest wildfires.”
Baby Burns, Baby
Over the last 50 years, the US Forest Service has only gradually started to use more prescription burning, in part due to community resistance.
“Very often people complain about it,” says Keeley, “and oftentimes slow it down and limit it. And I understand why. While I agree with prescription burning, I also understand that smoke is obnoxious and unhealthy.”
And sometimes foresters lose control of the fires. “In the early 1960s they called them ‘controlled burns’ but they couldn’t control them and so they called them ‘prescription burns.’ They’ve caused huge economic losses,” Keeley says.
Indeed, politicians are already blaming the US Forest Service for not putting one of northern California’s fires out sooner. “Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly,” reported the Sacramento Bee, “said the US Forest Service ‘let this fire smolder for weeks. They could have put it out.’”
Mechanical harvesting or “thinning” of forests by crews with chainsaws is an alternative to prescribed burns, but far more expensive, the scientists note. Indeed, it usually only makes sense economically if loggers are allowed to cut down larger trees, a policy that has traditionally been opposed by conservationists.
Another obstacle stems from the fact that the training of the fire crews is focused on simply extinguishing fires.
The national parks, in contrast to the national forests, take a different approach. “In Yosemite [National Park], they get forecasts and do models to see where the smoke will go,” says North.
“When it looks crappy, like the smoke will blow into Reno, Park Service crews will push the fire into granite outcrops or other areas with low fuels so it piddles along. Then, when there are good conditions, where the smoke will loft high, they pull the fire across the landscape,” North explains.
North is hopeful the public will be more accepting of smoke if they know it’s inevitable and are better prepared for it. “It’s all going to burn at some point. If we stay with business-as-usual, then you can plan on most of the forests being completely fuel-saturated, conditions that produce the massive fires where we have no control over the timing or direction of the smoke.
“If the public realizes that you’re going to get fire and smoke one way or another,” said North, “and pushes the agencies to have fires in a more predictable manner, they might say, ‘Let’s do it if you give me more warning.’”
What matters is giving people a feeling of control over the fires. “People say, ‘This sucks. I don’t want fires everywhere.’ But it’s a whole different world when you decide the conditions,” says North.
And yet the news media, particularly environmental journalists writing for East Coast newspapers, seem intent on painting the fires as apocalyptic, and due mostly to climate change, even though the skies would still be smoky and orange from fires buring the accumulation of wood fuel.
The problem isn’t the misleading coverage per se. The problem is that the misleading coverage risks making people feel less control over the fires. After all, everyone knows that emissions reductions won’t change the amount of area burned or smoke produced any time soon.
Climate change or no climate change, scientists say somewhere between 500,000 and 4 million acres of forest land need to burn annually in California. Accepting that reality, and managing it in a practical and more nuanced way, requires moving beyond the kind of environmental alarmism that got us into this mess in the first place.
If we do that, then we might be able to both limit, and plan for, the number of days in the future when we have to wake up to orange skies.