California Looks At Options To Reduce Fire Danger

Sep 13, 2020
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The West Coast is on fire. Here's California Governor Gavin Newsom.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: This is historic. This is the largest fire season we've had in terms of total acreage impacted in some time back - recorded recent modern history. But, nonetheless, you put it in comparison terms - contrast to last year, it's rather extraordinary the challenge that we've faced.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're going to look ahead now to what California could do to stop these catastrophic conflagrations. Danielle Venton is a reporter at member station KQED in San Francisco who has been looking into that. Welcome.

DANIELLE VENTON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're hearing a lot about the intensity and rapid spread of these fires. Can anything be done to mitigate this damage in the future?

VENTON: Yes. You know, California and the West have always had fire, and they always will have fire, but scientists tell us they don't need to be this bad. And we know a lot about how to lessen the intensity of fires and reduce the risk to neighborhoods and to people's lives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Give us some examples.

VENTON: A key way is to reduce the buildup of vegetation that can burn, and this brings fire lower to the ground rather than burning in the crown of trees. It also makes it easier and safer to defend homes and to put out fires. One of the most effective ways to get rid of vegetation is with prescribed or managed fires, which is something Indigenous people in the West have done for many thousands of years. And there's a movement to reintroduce Native cultural burning. There's also tools like thinning, lopping off tree limbs and using animals to graze.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, so if we know these are things that can help, why isn't the state of California already doing them?

VENTON: A big reason is just the scale of the problem. About 20 million acres need to be dealt with. This also requires a lot of money, staffing and political will. To do a burn, for example, you need to do extensive studies, get lots of permits, work through liability and legal issues. The state and the federal government are trying to ramp up efforts. But because a lot of the land they have to deal with is federally owned, they still have a far way to go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What can be done to protect people's homes, for example? I mean, clearly, that is a huge concern.

VENTON: Yeah, a big part of the reason the fires of the last few years seem so destructive is that so many people have moved into areas near wildlands. But homes can be built to resist flames and embers. And older, more combustible homes can be retrofitted to be more fire-safe. The state also needs to give more consideration to zoning. You know, are there areas that are too dangerous to be built or to be rebuilt? The state does inspect properties for fire safety, but records show that they're far behind in their goals for how frequently these occur.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So even if people enact the kind of changes you're talking about, will that really make a difference given that climate change is making wildfires even worse?

VENTON: Climate change is a real wild card, and some of these steps are expensive, and they'll take time - even a couple of decades. But fire experts do think the state can do better. This is a human-caused problem, ultimately, and so humans can help with the solutions. Here's how Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, put it.

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SCOTT STEPHENS: There really is hope in this state. There's hope for our ecosystems they'd be more fire resilient, better adapted to climate change. So I think there really is hope, and there is a way to step forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's reporter Danielle Venton of member station KQED in San Francisco. Thank you very much.

VENTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.