By Suzanne Hollis
During Dr. Michele Steinberg’s summary of wildfire history, she notes that in 2018 six wildfires accounted for $12.35 billion in losses. The history of wildfires and how they occur has led to what we have learned and where we should place our efforts. The occurrence and severity of wildfires is increasing, however, the lessons we have learned can help reverse this: wildfires are inevitable and necessary in many ecosystems. During large wildland/urban fires hundreds of structures an hour may be ignited, and no fire suppression system in the world can stop losses from large conflagrations. Dr. Steinberg’s comments on mitigation and preventive actions reminded me of our previous lecture Engineering with Nature for Enduring Resilience given by Dr. Todd Bridges. Our actions have disrupted the environment’s natural fire prevention.
By preventing natural wildfires from occurring, fuel in the form of dead foliage builds up dangerously so when a wildfire occurs it reaches the canopies and becomes uncontrollable. Rather than trying to reduce wildfires with human made solutions, disconnected from the ecosystem, we need to learn from the environment and lean into natural solutions. Dr. Steinberg notes American beliefs and attitudes towards wildfire, which Firewise USA is attempting to readjust through education: that wildfire is the enemy, it is the firefighter’s job to rescue me, nobody can tell me what to do with my property, but the government should aid me after a disaster, I am helpless in the face of wildfire, and there is nothing I can do to reduce my risk.
Dr. Steinberg placed great emphasis on the idea that wildfire prevention is a local effort, and that individuals are responsible for wildfire prevention mitigation. I think this is an interesting point, because currently our society is seeing a shift in the perception that climate change mitigation must be fronted by governments and larger companies rather than the individual. The attitude towards climate change and sustainability used to be that every individual must take on responsibility and take action, however, since what we know about solutions and mitigation has increased, the public perception of responsibility has shifted. This is the opposite from wildfire prevention. Wildfires used to be an uncontrollable force of nature, in which individuals had no power over. However, I have spent most of my summers in Idaho, with the understanding that preventing wildfire is an individual responsibility. My time in Idaho has also shown me that the efforts to educate communities about wildfires is in my opinion one of the best initiatives. When I consider government-run educational initiatives, wildfire prevention comes to mind quickly.
Dr. Steinberg discussed the fact that wildfires are occurring in new places and in greater force. This means that fires are occurring in areas that are not prepared for wildfires. There is certainly a lack of education about wildfire mitigation in these areas, so how will this harm prevention efforts? As climate change dries out and warms climates, wildfire risk and occurrence will continue to increase.
The parts of our country that are historically vulnerable to wildfires have preventative measures and education established. This is not the case for the rest of the country. Imagine living in a landlocked state, and having to react to a hurricane. There is no president, no education, and no habit to guide you. Living in Atlanta, I have never had to prepare for or react to an earthquake. How would I react to one, when I have not been prepared? As a country, we need to anticipate new vulnerable areas to wildfire, preemptively install resources and begin educating community members before it is too late.