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Gov. Gavin Newsom, standing in an ash-coated clearing scorched by the largest wildfires in California’s recorded history, last week vowed to fast-track his state’s transition to 100 percent renewable energy, a target previously set for 2045. “This is a climate damn emergency,” he declared.
Such commitments may be necessary for the global effort to stop climate change, but as Mr. Newsom seemed to acknowledge, they are no longer sufficient to prevent megafires of the kind now burning the American West and poisoning its skies. Scientists have estimated that even if aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions were made today, it would still take decades for them to have any noticeable effect on rising temperatures.
“If the fires of 2020 horrify you, as they should,” David Wallace-Wells writes for New York magazine, “consider that by 2050, when the benefits of fast climate action will only begin to arrive, the area burned annually in the West is expected to have at least doubled, and perhaps quadrupled.”
Given this grim prognosis, how can the West minimize the loss of life and destruction that global warming is already causing, and what do other U.S. regions need to do to adapt? Here’s what people are saying.
Fighting fire with fire (and policy)
Fixing forest management
President Trump has rejected the scientific consensus about the clear relationship between the changing climate and intensifying wildfires, instead seeking to blame poor forest management. Many argue there is a kernel of truth to the latter claim, even if it implicates Mr. Trump and his predecessors, since most of California’s and Oregon’s forests are federally held.
For more than a century, the State of California has treated wildfires as unqualified threats, extinguishing them whenever they occur. But the problem with that strategy, Elizabeth Weil writes for ProPublica, is that California is naturally primed to catch fire: Before Euro-American settlement in the 1800s, fires burned about 1.5 million of California’s 100 million acres every year. After decades of aggressive fire suppression, forests once periodically cleared by less intense wildfires are now blanketed with natural fuel.
“We dug ourselves into a deep, dangerous fuel imbalance due to one simple fact,” Ms. Weil writes. “We live in a Mediterranean climate that’s designed to burn, and we’ve prevented it from burning anywhere close to enough for well over 100 years. Now climate change has made it hotter and drier than ever before, and the fire we’ve been forestalling is going to happen, fast, whether we plan for it or not.”
Ecologists, forest managers and firefighters Ms. Weil spoke to agreed on one vital solution: To control fires, humans have to start more themselves. As my colleague Jill Cowan explains, California’s Native American tribes had for thousands of years used controlled fires to keep wild ones in check. As of 2017, though, only 13,000 acres per year are subject to prescribed burns in California, and the practice is similarly rare in Oregon and Washington.
The challenge posed by the backlog is staggering: To bring California’s fires back under control, researchers at Stanford estimated that the state might need to burn or thin a fifth of its land, an area about the size of Maine.
Lack of funding and opposition among residents make prescribed burns a politically difficult proposition, Ms. Cowan explains, but the alternative is the crisis playing out before us. “The big picture solution is realizing there is going to be a lot more fire on the landscape,” Daniel Swain, a California climate expert, told her. “I don’t see how we get out of this without allowing a lot more to burn.”
Building more resilient housing
As the former Times climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis wrote in 2018, many of the deadliest and costliest fires start not in the heart of isolated forests but at the wildland-urban interface, where developed and undeveloped land meet. About 44 million houses, equivalent to one in every three in the country, are in these zones, and the number is rising particularly fast in California. Wildfires already pose the greatest danger to people in the wildland-urban interface, and their presence there tends to increase the number of fires that start in the first place.
Experts say that governments could impose regulations to make housing developments more resilient, including stipulations for fire-resistant building materials and moats of cleared vegetation known as defensible space. California adopted many of these standards, some of the strictest in the country, in 2008. One analysis of the devastating Camp Fire that killed 85 people in 2018 determined that about 51 percent of the 350 single-family homes built to the new codes escaped damage, compared with just 18 percent of the 12,100 homes built earlier.
But there are considerable obstacles to making such fortifications more widespread. In many states, developers have resisted new regulations. Retrofitting the millions of houses already built can be prohibitively expensive. And in the aftermath of a fire, the pressure to rebuild often wins out over safety considerations.
“At this point we’ve learned a lot about how to engineer homes and communities so that they can be more survivable,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire expert affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But these lessons aren’t being implemented fast enough.”
Unsprawling the suburbs
Last year, The Los Angeles Times editorial board repeated the call for increased fire resiliency, but argued that it was foolish to pretend that housing regulations would eliminate the danger created by building and rebuilding in high-fire-risk areas. “Cities and state agencies are talking about ‘managed retreat’ — or relocating threatened homes — from communities facing coastal erosion or flooding,” the board wrote. “Why is there not a similar policy discussion in areas that repeatedly burn?”
One reason, as Mr. Newsom put it, is that the notion runs counter to California’s “pioneering spirit.” Another reason, as the Times editorial board wrote last year, is that California’s sprawl is driven in part by soaring housing prices that have pushed people out of cities. Prohibitions against building in fire-prone areas would therefore entail building denser, affordable housing in urban economic centers.
To the Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, the challenge that lies before the state is nothing less than a transformation of its way of life. “Californian suburbia, the ideal of much of American suburbia, was built and sold on the promise of endless excess — everyone gets a car, a job, a single-family home and enough water and gasoline and electricity to light up the party,” he writes. “But it is long past obvious that infinitude was a false promise. Traffic, sprawl, homelessness and ballooning housing costs are all consequences of our profligacy with the land and our other resources.”
Updating the fire safety curriculum
While some devastating fires are caused by negligent utility companies and natural causes, most are caused, intentionally or unintentionally, by people. In Washington State, for example, people have started more than 1,300 fires so far this year. The Seattle Times editorial board argues that climate change has only increased the need to cultivate a more rigorous ethic of fire prevention among the public.
“Vigilance about fire safety must be an everyday concern. From cigarette butts tossed on the roadside to campfires and fire pits, each outdoor spark is a threat to bucolic wild lands, property and life during these long parched weeks,” the board writes. “Every Washington resident and business shares this responsibility. Schools and public-safety bulletins should urgently spread this gospel. The message must be amplified each summer.”
Thinking beyond the West Coast
In the coming decades, no part of the United States will remain unaffected by climate change. As Abrahm Lustgarten writes in The New York Times Magazine, Americans have been conditioned not to respond to climate threats as people in the rest of the world do, possessed of a boundless faith in the capacity of money and technology to domesticate nature. But across the country, he says, not just in the West, the gap between what the climate can destroy and what money can replace is growing.
Florida officials have already acknowledged that safeguarding some roadways against rising seas will be unaffordable. In recent years, the Southeast has had to contend with what may be the emergence of its own dangerous annual fire season. And for the first time, the nation’s federal flood-insurance program is now mandating that some of its payouts be used to retreat from damage-prone areas. The insurance, real estate and private-equity industries are beginning to register the risk, he writes, and “it will soon prove too expensive to maintain the status quo.”
What replaces it is still an open question. According to a federal report, the United States will need to spend billions of dollars to fortify its coastlines, rebuild its sewer systems, rethink its farming practices and potentially relocate millions of people from the coasts. What adaptation looks like will vary region by region, but writ large, Matt Shaw argues in The Times, the country has to learn to accommodate nature instead of just pushing back against it.
“All of these plans incorporate elements of resilience; none of them considers abandoning neighborhoods or cities altogether,” he writes. “But they recognize that fortification alone is a dead end, and that true resilience that leads to adaptation will require us to give up any notion of maintaining the status quo.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
MORE ON CLIMATE ADAPTATION
“A Climate Reckoning in Fire-Stricken California” [The New York Times]
“A Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Wildfires” [The New York Times]
“Think 2020’s disasters are wild? Experts see worse in future” [The Washington Post]
“How Can We Plan for the Future in California” [The Atlantic]
“The Case for ‘Managed Retreat’” [Politico]
“With Climate Change No Longer in the Future, Adaptation Speeds Up” [The New York Times]
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Here’s what readers had to say about the last edition: “What if We Have to Wait Years for a Coronavirus Vaccine?”
Julie, 69, from Colorado: “The article describes where we might get to with partially effective vaccines and three types of treatments. The conclusion addresses fatality but not the long-term morbidity that is beginning to appear.”
John, 70, from California: “I was about 5 years old when the Salk polio vaccine was released. We were terrified of polio. Everyone knew or knew of someone who had contracted polio. You might have to use the dreaded ‘iron lung’ to survive. You could be paralyzed for life. Of course, we all got vaccinated. … Having read your piece, it occurred to me to see, compared to Covid-19, how many people contracted polio and how many died. The answer is a lot fewer than I imagined. According to the C.D.C. there were an average of 16,316 infections and 1,879 deaths per year from 1951 to 1954. We lived in mortal terror of polio. Compared to Covid-19 it was no pandemic. In less than a year nearly 200,000 people have died. That is more than 100 times the number that succumbed to polio each year.”