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Podcasts The Big Burn: How To Survive the Age of Wildfires
The Big Burn: Taking A Step Back
A person in silhouette looks out at hills on fire with the words; The Big Burn in orange display type
LAist)
Episode 6
23:33
The Big Burn: Taking A Step Back
Digesting what we’ve learned. Plus, how other places in the U.S. have figured out fire management. This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Give online therapy a try at betterhelp.com/bigburn and get on your way to being your best self.

Jacob Margolis  00:00

Hey, I'm Jacob Margolis, and this is The Big Burn. [music in] Over the last five episodes of the show, we've gone really deep on all things fire. We've talked about the dangers of fuel buildup, the benefits of prescribed burning, and why we're not doing enough of it, and our really messed up history behind some of our biggest fire problems. And honestly, it's a lot. And we're gonna be learning a lot more about fire in the coming episodes. But today, I wanted to take a step back and do some digesting, fill in some gaps in knowledge that we haven't quite gotten to squeeze in, and talk about places in the US that California can learn from, that have actually figured out how to put fire back on the land- like Florida. To do that, we're talking to one of the biggest fire experts in the state. [music out]

 

Jacob Margolis  00:52

It's Scott. Hey, Scott.

 

Scott Stephens  00:55

Hello.

 

Jacob Margolis  00:56

So, microphone check. Who are you? How do you like to be identified?

 

Scott Stephens  01:01

Sure. I'm Scott Stephens, Professor of Fire Science, UC Berkeley.

 

Jacob Margolis  01:05

How long you been doing this?

 

Scott Stephens  01:07

I've been doing this a little over 30 years now.

 

Jacob Margolis  01:09

So Scott, in the last episode, we talked a lot about the big impediments to putting prescribed fire on private and state lands. But one thing we didn't talk about is how things are going on federal lands, which make up more than half of California. So I wanted to ask you, when it comes to the federal government and prescribed burning, how are they doing here?

 

Scott Stephens  01:32

Yeah, the Forest Service is working hard to try to increase prescribed fire on their lands. Couple things are really a challenge. One is a workforce. There is no workforce in California to do prescribed fire at even beginning the scale necessary. Absolutely zero. You know, this last year, we didn't have any rain in Northern California from January to mid-March in the Sierra Nevada. We're talking about two and a half months in the middle of winter, that was bone dry. That could have been the biggest opportunity to prescribe fire in this state, maybe I've ever seen. But we had no workforce. So no prescribed fire happened. Almost zero. Most people that work on fires today, because of the conditions being so extreme, they're completely burned out after six or eight months, psychologically, and physically. They can't just flip a switch and say we're going to do this, and plus, they aren't really that trained in this area either. So we need a total new workforce that's in parallel suppression. Thousands of people that actually can take advantage of opportunities to get fired done, on the ground in the Forest Service, that's nimble, trained, and able to go on prescribed fire when conditions are conducive in the state. Another thing we need is the ability of line officers and upper management to actually allow fire to happen with mistakes. This is difficult because I guarantee- I've been on 130 prescribed fires as a participant myself. I've done 130 fires in my career. And probably 5% of those have had issues, like they've actually got outside the line that we wanted. When we have mistakes in this state, are we going to be able to actually weather those mistakes and learn as a whole program, or go down the toilet? We have to have the ability in this state to allow people to do this work, this very difficult work, and feel like that every 10 minutes, their careers are not on the line, both personally and professionally. And then, the last one I would say would be just the ability of us to actually allow burning to happen from a public standpoint. You're gonna have smoke in the air. And smoke is no fun to breathe. No doubt you're going to have smoke. And it's gonna be something we're going to have to live with. Because there's no other option.

 

Jacob Margolis  03:39

So to recap the problems: workforce, political support, social acceptance, training a bunch of people up. So Scott, is there a place in the US where they have figured this out, where they have started to apply fire on the land on a larger scale and have been able to cover people, have the workforce?

 

Scott Stephens  04:00

There are two places in the US that actually figured this out, and they're really different. One of them is in the Great Plains. Oklahoma, Kansas- They burn millions of acres there, really for grassland conservation, and also livestock grazing. The other place that actually is enforced is the Southeast US. The Southeast US- Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina. These places are the prescribed fire capital of the United States of America. One thing that really boggles the mind, at least to a Westerner like me, you know, last year Florida burned 1.2 million acres of forest, that's prescribed fire, and 75% of that was on private ground. 1.2 million acres. California did about 50,000 last year. 50,000 acres total. And that includes you know, grasslands, shrublands, and forests, so tiny. And it's not simple there either. Course it's different. They get more summer rain. They actually have less mountains. But man, do they have a lot of people. Okay, those states are full of people. Look at Florida- people moving down there from the Northeast and other places- it's really a giant place where people go down to retire. So they have real issues with people and actually the ability to get smoke in the air, all that stuff. But they still do it because they come to the conclusion there's no other option. The other option is, frankly, what's going on in California. Let wildfire basically manage your landscape. And that is a devastating option. So we do look to the Southeast for their laws that they've actually put in since the 1990s, their training center in Tallahassee, Florida. We're trying to duplicate that out here. So we're looking to them for some ideas that, frankly, can be transferred.

 

Jacob Margolis  05:40

Then what are three good ideas from the Southeast US that you'd steal, bring over to California?

 

Scott Stephens  05:48

Well, a couple great ideas are- one is liability. So in 1990, Florida passed the Prescribed Fire Act. And in that law- it was actually revolutionary at the time- it said, if you were- did a prescribed fire- You had a plan that was approved, reviewed by your peers. You went out and you conducted that prescribed fire, according to your plan as best to your ability, and then you lost it? Lost the fire, caused damage, even including burning down houses? That if you did that, the state would back you up, 100% liability coverage. Another thing would be a prescribed fire training center. Tallahassee, Florida's had one for decades and decades where you can go and get trained to be a prescribed burner. And this includes private individuals, state individuals that work for states, federal people. And it's that place that actually has all these people coming together, Nature Conservancy and others, that actually has this fabulous training opportunity. And they've been doing this for decades and decades and decades. And we need to do that. We have nothing like that out here. And then the last one is the ability of private people to get trained and actually burn private ground. So you know, we talk a lot about the Forest Service, the Park Service Bureau of Land Management, and we should because there are huge areas in the Western US, right? But there are also tens of millions of acres of private land by private people that also need treatment. And in the Southeast, majority of burning is on private ground by private people. I mean, in some ways, that's mind boggling. You know, think about that in California. How many folks in California that own 350 acres are actually out there prescribed burning it once in a while to try to reduce its vulnerability to fire? [music in] So the, the private individuals are also part of the solution here, which certainly we need to do here. And some of the training in California is bringing that along. But those three things are just incredibly powerful for the ability to get work done.

 

Jacob Margolis  07:41

That's Scott Stephens, Professor of Fire Science at UC Berkeley. After the break, why Scott thinks we only have about 10 more years to figure all this stuff out. And why we're gonna need to cut down a bunch of trees in our forests to get to where we need to go. [music out] [break]

 

Jacob Margolis  08:04

Hey, it's Jacob Margolis, and you're listening to The Big Burn. This is my conversation with UC Berkeley Professor of Fire Science, Scott Stephens.

 

Jacob Margolis  08:13

So Scott, one of the things that obviously comes up constantly in conversation about wildfires in California is climate change, which is a contributor to worsening conditions. And I'm curious, what percentage of the worsening forest fires would you attribute to climate change? And what percentage would you attribute to poor landscape management over time?

 

Scott Stephens  08:34

Now climate change has been impacting fires in this state for sure. It's actually making things more variable, hotter, drier. But- But I say that climate change impacts are no more than 25% of the current issue of California forest and fire. I don't have a paper that I can point to to back that up; I'll just say that. But it's just my experience in 30 years. Yosemite National Park- So, this is an area, a basin just behind Half Dome, called Illilouette Creek. It's an area the National Park Service began to allow lightning fires to burn unabated pretty much since 1974. So, an area that's been burning off and on for 40, 50 years. And then you go in there- We've been going in there for years and years looking at hydrology, water, soils, vegetation. So the 2012, the 2015 drought comes along, and you know what happened. 150 million trees died in the Southern and Central Sierra Nevada. But the mortality of the trees inside Illilouette Creek was 5% of that. Only about 5% of the trees died inside Illilouette Creek because fire had been shaping it. It's 30, 40, 50 trees per acre, low fuel loads, and it's in a condition then when climate change comes along and actually makes it worse, when we have drought, maybe 5% of the trees die.

 

Jacob Margolis  09:52

So that means more water is available to individual trees as a result of fewer trees on the landscape.

 

Scott Stephens  09:58

That's exactly right. And there's gaps out there, small gaps, five acres, two acres that actually allow snow to accumulate and persist on the ground for longer periods. So more snow is actually getting on the ground, staying longer, and wetting that system.

 

Jacob Margolis  10:14

Which is important, because that's one of the big things that feeds our, that that you know, gives our forest something to drink.

 

Scott Stephens  10:20

No, it does. I mean, exactly right. I mean, getting more water into soil, allowing more water to be stored in deep areas of soil and rock during climate change and drought is just impera- It has to happen. Otherwise, our forests are just dying in front of our eyes.

 

Jacob Margolis  10:36

So besides prescribed burning, what else can we be doing in our forests to mitigate some of these really, really bad fires?

 

Scott Stephens  10:43

Yeah, you really have two types of tools. You got mechanical tools, and you got fire tools, right? So the other real bin is this mechanical tool bin. And this is the idea of restoration thinning.

 

Jacob Margolis  10:53

Restoration thinning means cutting down trees.

 

Scott Stephens  10:55

It does. Restoration thinning means cutting down trees, small ones, medium sized ones. So you go in there with the idea of what you want to leave in the forest that you think is gonna actually work for you in the future. If there's anything in excess of that, which there will be, I'm gonna remove it, and I'm not gonna leave the fuel on the ground. That's restoration thinning. It will reduce the potential to lose forest catastrophically from climate change, fire, and bark beetles. It'll actually sequester carbon at very high rates. And by no means does this actually duplicate everything fire does. It doesn't recycle nutrients by burning them, but it'll get you probably 80% there. So this idea of restoration thinning is one that sometimes I think people don't even want to go there because somehow, it's a timber grab. You don't even want to consider it. But the research is very clear that it actually is very effective.

 

Jacob Margolis  11:43

So there is the restoring the ecology of wildlands, but then there's also the stuff that communities and people can do outside of of government action.

 

Scott Stephens  11:54

I'll just mention one thing about Australia. So interesting. I've been over there for two sabbaticals. Australia's got big fire issues, you know, just like we do. One thing they do is they create community fire brigades. Community fire brigades are 100% volunteer of community members and subdivisions. They get together twice a year, and they talk about fire. They say, "Okay, is it a drought? Is it actually maybe wet? Do I have a neighbor next door that's 81 years old, doesn't have a car? Do I have maybe someone that just had a baby down the street that actually has no ability to get away?" So what they do is they actually talk about this, and they actually make a plan. So if a big fire does come, at least they have an idea of maybe how they're going to help their neighbors get away. How are they actually going to maybe treat the fuels around their homes as a community, to reduce the vulnerability for spot ignitions. How they're gonna communicate with the fire service. In fact, the fire service gives 'em radios to talk directly to them with radios and trains them to use it. So, I think there's things we can do so much better there because the time to make a plan about a fire is not when you look out the window and it's burning in your front yard. You gotta make a plan ahead of time, right? And this is one thing I think the Australians actually do with these community fire brigades that gets people more tuned up with the fire season. They do this routinely. I think this is a powerful thing that we might be able to do to help us in Southern California.

 

Jacob Margolis  13:17

It seems that no matter what, we need to accept that the landscapes around us are going to be quite different going forward. I personally, I have trouble accepting that because I know a lot of the landscapes I grew up with are changing and that maybe they weren't, they weren't healthy, great to begin with. [SS: Yeah.] And I'm wondering where you end up as someone who's studied this for all this time, where you end up in this place of coming to terms with a future that does look different.

 

Scott Stephens  13:43

About 20 years ago, I started to tell folks in some of my talks that someday, the forest was going to change right in front of our eyes. And I just said that because I thought inevitably, things were going to change and really shock us. And this has happened. The 2012, the 2015 drought that actually happened in the Central and Southern Sierra Nevada, killed at least 150 million trees. And then we had a four-year drought and native bark beetles came in and killed trees at scales we never saw before in this state. And talk about fires for a moment. You know, the Dixie Fire that burned last year 2021, the North Complex the year before, the Mendocino Fire, the Creek Fire. These places are changing forests right in front of our eyes. We're seeing patches of mortality, tens of thousands of acres, 50 thousand acres continuous. And the ability of that to come, a forest again, is gonna be compromised severely. So you're gonna see a landscape essentially that is gonna be so much more fragmented than we've ever experienced in our lives. Forests will still be there. They're not going away. There will still be trees growing, more shrubs, more hard edges between vegetation types. And it's just gonna be so much different but the thing is, can we do something about it? You're darn right we can do something about it. We need to work in the green forest today, before they change into those patches we just talked about. Get into those areas that are still green, that need the restoration, do that proactive work. And I think about this, what about this for our grandkids? What kind of forests are we leaving for our grandkids? Otherwise, we're just going to let fire and climate change, drought, change the forest right in front of our eyes.

 

Jacob Margolis  15:21

[music in] How do you remain hopeful? Do you remain hopeful?

 

Scott Stephens  15:30

I do remain hopeful, but some days I actually wake up and I have a um, a stomach ache. It's just that simple for me. You know, I, just really feels that, you know, we've left an opportunity, you know, an opportunity to do this work 40 years ago, 30 years ago, when my predecessors and others were already talking about it. And we continued really to kick the can down the road. Okay, so now, I hate to say it, we're in a crisis mode. We're in a crisis now. We see things changing right in front of our eyes, and the vulnerabilities increasing because of climate change. Human communities impacted. And I still am optimistic that we're gonna be able to do some work, start to change trajectory. I say we got 10 to 15 years to change trajectory. That doesn't mean we're going to fix it, but if we actually start to do this work in earnest, in 10 to 15 years, I think we could actually look back and say, Yeah, we've done something that probably will make a difference into the future.

 

Jacob Margolis  16:18

After the break, how Southern California ecology is different, and why that means we need a different approach to fire. [music out] [break]

 

Jacob Margolis  16:39

Hey, this is Jacob Margolis. You're listening to my conversation with fire science Professor Scott Stephens, here on The Big Burn. Let's get back to it.

 

Jacob Margolis  16:47

I, I want to pivot to where we're going next with the podcast. We've talked a lot about how prescribed fire could help restore our forests here in California. And we focus mainly on the forests in Northern California. But my understanding is that it's a kind of a totally different game, especially here in Southern California.

 

Scott Stephens  17:09

Chaparral in California, which is a shrubland- That just simply means evergreen shrubs, about six feet tall, that are growing all over the state. Chaparral almost makes up 10% of California's vegetation. And there's a lot more in San Diego and Los Angeles areas.

 

Jacob Margolis  17:24

And it's especially around big, developed areas, here in like Los Angeles, San Diego. You know, big cities.

 

Scott Stephens  17:30

No, it is. Yeah, it is. Chaparral and the shrublands are the vegetation that adjoins some of the largest areas of population in California and the United States. Los Angeles, San Diego, Ventura counties. And when it burns, it burns with big flame lengths. It burns with high severity- simply means the whole shrub is burned up. And it does this over big areas simultaneously. Thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of acres. So when you think about that, what do you do about that, okay? You cannot under burn Chaparral. You're not gonna put a prescribed fire and somehow reduce the surface fuels on the ground, and then reduce the volatility of the Chaparral fuel bed to put flame lengths at 300 feet. That is not an option, okay? You're not really gonna have an option of do much mechanical treatment. Of course, you can grind up the Chaparral shrubs near homes, but it is a huge dilemma. Another problem with Chaparral and the shrubs, is climate change impacts that fire regime just like it does for forests, makes it worse, but we don't have the tools in the toolbox that we can use to actually reduce its vulnerability.

 

Jacob Margolis  18:37

Well, cuz a big part of this is also that Chaparral, the amount of fire that it would experience naturally, the return intervals it seems would be 20, 50, 100 plus years. And so, if a fire comes along, which we've seen in these areas and wipes it all out, then it seems like climate change is making the recovery of these native plants harder because it's hotter. And then on top of that, the invasive grasses start to come in and uh, carry fire through that ecosystem again and burn up all the, kind of like, the seed beds and stuff that's gonna let those ecosystems recover. Right? And so, so i- to me, it seems like, i- Chaparral, these areas, they're just experiencing too much fire at this point.

 

Scott Stephens  19:15

A lot of areas of Chaparral and the shrubs are experiencing too much fire. Um, one place for sure- the Santa Monica Mountains. The Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles area is one area that's had way too many ignitions, both from people, power lines. And if you burn it too frequently, every 10 years, every 15 years, every six years, the Chaparral cannot regenerate from that. It can't resprout and its seedbank will be reduced. So Chaparral and a lot of areas is seeing too much fire, and we're seeing type conversion. Type conversion simply means you're going from a shrubland dominated by shrubs six feet tall, and you're going to a grassland which is actually 18 inches tall. So you're having that potential to really change the fundamental character of that ecosystem. And wh- when you put people next to it, in the most, maybe the most volatile fuel bed almost in the world that I've ever seen, including all the Mediterranean climates of the world, the Chaparral fuel bed is really a difficult one.

 

Jacob Margolis  20:10

To me a lot of this sounds like, considering we want to have these big cities right in these areas that do burn, a lot of this sounds like there are a lot of questions to ask about what we want this land to be and what we're using it for, and where we hope to take it in the long term. I think those are really big questions to be asked across the state and all sorts of ecosystems. And I, I don't think there are solid answers across the board.

 

Scott Stephens  20:36

Well, I think you're right. I still think most people don't realize how vulnerable they are, where they actually live in California when it comes to fire. Because you know, for a long time, fires just got maybe that ridge over there or that city down there, right? It just didn't really impact me, or maybe my direct relatives or such. But that's changed. The last 10 years or so, fires have gotten larger. They've actually impacted people. I don't know if there's many people in California today that can't talk about a friend, a relative, or somebody they know that actually, actually lost structures, lost homes, lost wellbeing, jobs. [music in] It is the conundrum of, you know, where people live, and getting people more, really, connected to their land and their vulnerability and trying to take as many proactive actions as possible to reduce their vulnerability.

 

Jacob Margolis  21:31

Scott Stephens, Professor of Fire Science at UC Berkeley. In the next half of the show, we're gonna zoom in on Southern California and how the ecology and fire problem here is different, and what needs to be done to address it.

 

Jon Keeley  21:43

In Southern California, all our fires are started by people. So add 6 million people to the landscape and you're going to increase the number of ignitions.

 

Jacob Margolis  21:52

That's next time on The Big Burn.

 

Jacob Margolis  21:57

The Big Burn is created, written, reported, and hosted by me, Jacob Margolis. Shana Naomi Krochmal is our Vice President of Podcasts. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Our producer is Minju Park, with additional production by Anjuli Sastry Krbecheck. Bruno Lopez-Vega is our intern. Natalie Chudnovsky is the senior producer. Editing by Meg Cramer. Fact checking by Caitlin Antonios. Professor Theresa Gregor is our Native cultural content reader. Sound design and mixing by E. Scott Kelly. Original music by Andy Clausen. Our website LAist.com is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding. Artwork for this show by Dan Carino. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios including Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Leo G. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live, the Strelow Family, and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. The Big Burn is a production of LAist Studios. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. [music out]