This year there were wildfires raging across the state of California. Some of them I could see from my backyard! We can probably all agree that the fires are terrible. But it’s hard not to think they have a sort of mystical, other-wordly quality when they put everything else into perspective. Even when you live in such a large city with lots of sprawl, you’re in danger from one of Mother Nature’s outbursts.
I started reading about why they occur so often, what the consequences are if they aren’t stopped, and how we might go about preventing more of them from breaking out in the first place. What surprised me is that all the answers go way beyond global man-made climate change — although that is largely believed to be a major component as well.
Power lines are one of the contributing factors. Many of the fires have ignited because downed power lines hit a patch of dry brush. That’s why power companies were shutting down power to many households across the northern portion of the state. But that can’t be the best option, can it?
California Governor Gavin Newsom is putting together a team of energy experts to find a better way. They started at the very beginning: infrastructure needs to be updated to make power lines safer. They would order inspections in high-risk areas to find out where the lines could use repairing.
And then there were the mandatory power outages. They weren’t controversial because they occurred at all. They were controversial because the implementation was so horrible, even though some companies have been successfully doing the same thing for years and years. San Diego Gas & Electric only cut power to about 400 customers because it had already invested in more modern technologies decades ago.
Another reason wildfires are so common is because we’re so “good” at “fighting fire.” The concept of fighting fire didn’t exist at all until a forest fire enveloped a town and killed a bunch of people over a century ago. When officials implemented new fire prevention methods, they began to fine people who were using prescribed burns to control and reduce dry brush. Turns out, prescribed burns worked pretty well. Because they were made illegal, wildfires where they had been used became much more common.
In the many decades since those laws were first implemented, fires have become worse and worse. And yeah, of course part of the problem is climate change. But the bigger part of the problem is how we try to prevent them in the first place. Sometimes you need a fire to reset an area of growth and prevent a larger fire sometime later. That’s the way the Native Americans had been doing it for hundreds of years!