Friday: Get caught up on what you need to know before fire season gets into full swing.
June 25, 2021, 8:50 a.m. ET
This time of year, it’s always there — a kind of looming peril that tinges even the most perfect, blue-skied beach days and hikes. It’s the knowledge that at any moment, a fire could spark anywhere in the state and consume hundreds of thousands of acres, level homes and threaten lives.
In recent years, climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter and faster. Last year, in particular, the sheer magnitude of the conflagrations and the plumes of toxic smoke they sent billowing over thousands of miles — all during a respiratory pandemic — served as a wake-up call for many: Once fire season is underway, it’s too late to prepare.
So, although there are already fires burning in California, we thought it would be useful to help you get ready.
Here’s what to know:
Why is this fire season likely to be so bad?
First, all the reasons that wildfires in California have been particularly catastrophic in the last couple of decades are still very much present. The troubling trends are continuing.
Those include the changing climate, in which extreme heat makes everything drier and thus more flammable. Plus there’s the century-long policy of putting out every fire that sparks, which has actually made fires worse, because there’s no room for new growth and fuel builds up.
Also, more people live in places that are at risk of burning.
This year, on top of all that, we are in the midst of a drought of historic proportions. So vegetation is even more primed to burn.
What can the state do to prevent fires from raging out of control, damaging homes and communities?
The broad consensus is that once fires are already tearing through millions of acres (as was the case last year) there’s not much that can be done to control them except to try to keep them away from homes and other buildings with difficult, dangerous work done by a firefighting corps that has been exhausted. So, more attention has turned to longer-term fixes.
That means more prescribed burns — or smaller, cooler fires set on purpose to clear out vegetation when there’s more moisture in the air and weather conditions are less likely to blow a blaze out of control.
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently unveiled a $2 billion proposal for fire-prevention efforts, including thinning out overgrown forests and more investment in firefighting equipment like planes and helicopters.
Experts have also emphasized the need to curb development in the wildland urban interface — where homes run up against wilderness. In those areas, homes are more vulnerable. And if the homes burn and are rebuilt in the same way in the same fire-prone places, they could burn again.
Recently, my colleague Christopher Flavelle reported that California’s insurance regulator backed major changes that would discourage new construction in those fire-prone areas by cutting off their access to the state’s high-risk insurance pool.
What are some of the challenges to making these things happen?
Well, as you can imagine, any measures that significantly reshape the California real estate market face many obstacles. (The building industry immediately pushed back against the insurance policy change proposals, saying that standards for building are already strong enough to protect homes.)
And the vegetation clearing is time-consuming, grueling work that often requires coordination between multiple state and federal agencies, plus private landowners. And needed progress on crucial fire prevention projects has been slower than Newsom has said, as CapRadio and NPR reported.
What can I do to protect my home?
You can take some of the steps laid out by my colleagues Marie Tae McDermott and Giulia Heyward.
Read about how “fire monks” have been protecting the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the oldest Soto Zen monastery in the United States, from the Willow fire.
Read about how wildfires can threaten drinking water supplies, long after flames have been extinguished.
Read the full investigation into the governor’s overstatement of wildfire prevention efforts from CapRadio and NPR.
Explore graphics showing how last year’s wildfires across the West capped a disastrous decade.