Wildland Fire, Extreme Weather and Society: Implications of a History of Fire Suppression in California, USA
Wildland fire is a natural process integral to the formation and health of forest ecosystems globally. California, USA, is case study where large areas of wildland have a recent 100 plus year history of human suppression of fire that with extreme weather is combining to create large high intensity burns changing both species composition and increasing threats to life, health and property. The cool wet winters and hot dry summers in California produce a climate where fire is common and many environmental systems have evolved to rely on frequent fire for reproduction and health. Fire has been systemically removed creating a backlog of fuels as vegetation normally burned accumulates. Extreme weather enhanced by climate change is increasing the duration of the fire season and occurrence of extreme fire weather and events. The abundance of fuels and increase in probability of fire, primarily due to human-caused ignitions in the wildland–urban interface, are creating an increase of large catastrophic fires not typical of these ecosystems. These large high-intensity fires are an immediate threat to life and property, produce large amounts of smoke impacting human health far from the fire, and leave behind a burn area then susceptible to extreme rainfall events that create landslides and mudslides. Returning fire to the historic role it has played in sustaining these systems reduces the probability of catastrophic fire and the conditions where extreme rainfall can additionally cause further threats to life and property from debris flows. Exposure of the public to smoke from wildfire increases when high intensity burns occur. Wildland fire typical of this ecosystem which occurred before suppression limited the extent and amount of such exposure. There are current attempts to effect positive change to policy and give a voice to the role of fire in the ecosystem. Long-standing policy based on the unsustainable complete exclusion of fire and public pressure on air quality inhibits functional change to smoke and fire management. The collision of what current fire and smoke science advises as the appropriate action (inclusion of fire as a land management tool), and public opinion driving implementation of fire management decisions in California (the exclusion of fire) illustrates a global problem where climate change and policy driven by belief are synergistically worsening environmental and human health.
KeywordsWildland fire Extreme weather Smoke management policy
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