Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on November 1, 2020.

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Our current approach to combatting wildfire isn't working. So why do we remain complacent in the face of failure?

In early September, there were days when thick smoke and ash from hundreds of nearby wildfires transformed the daytime skies above Northern California and the Pacific Northwest into a murky orange twilight. Social media was flooded with images from the surreal spectacle.

On Twitter, I shared a reporter’s video of a man silhouetted against the dark orange skies, gazing out at the apocalyptic scene from beneath San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. “If only I could believe this is ‘the worst …’” I wrote, before posting it.

I admit, that sentiment might sound especially dismal amidst this terrible year and the horrific fires that continue in California, Washington, and Oregon. But I’ve read reports of small towns burned to the ground, of deaths, and of crowded wildfire shelters in the midst of a global pandemic. In fact, I’ve seen little in my career that rivals the magnitude of these events. But I also know that the wildfire records being broken in 2020 will not stand for long; the devastation will continue to get worse in the coming years due in large part to global climate change. The critical question ahead is whether we will learn from these fires and adapt accordingly, or if we will once again write off these events as “extreme” or as “anomalies” and resume our complacency.

For decades, scientists have warned of the dire consequences of global climate change, and it’s clear that that future is here. Those consequences include higher highs and lower lows, meaning climate extremes in every direction. That doesn’t mean that every wildfire season will be as bad as this one, but previously unthinkable events—massive wildfires in normally humid regions, or years with almost no snowpack in historically cool, wet mountain ranges—will become, if not normal, at least possible within the range of imagination. These conditions set the stage for the massive wildfire events we’ve witnessed this year, and that we might witness long into the future. To combat them means changing our mindset, our strategies, and our response.

Craig Fugate, the former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been an outspoken advocate for this practice. In interviews, he has stressed that we need to take a science-based approach to help us imagine and plan for much larger, more complex events, the types that we currently like to describe as “extreme.” While such an approach might make some agencies and policymakers uncomfortable, the truth is that yesterday’s extreme is today’s normal. Instead of planning based on the current capabilities of our agencies—in the hope they can scale up to meet a large disaster—we must realistically assess community risk and plan for worst-case scenarios.

On the preparation and response side, fire scientists have long said that the paradigm of trying to control and suppress fire is no longer sustainable. Instead, we need to utilize our knowledge of wildfire by creating fire-resilient landscapes and, ultimately, a society that can truly co-exist with wildfire. This entails planning, designing, building, and maintaining our communities with wildfire in mind, a process achieved through smart land use, fire-resistant building design, and ongoing work to make homes and communities ignition-resistant.

Complacency with our current approach to wildfire is a path toward the disastrous outcomes we witnessed this summer. That approach has resulted in a society that is barely prepared for normal events, much less the so-called “extremes” we are seeing now and can anticipate in the future. Anyone who saw photos of communities beneath apocalyptic orange skies knows deep down that we can’t wait any longer to act. We must listen to science, we must recognize the evolving threat of wildfire, and we must act to face it head-on.

Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler