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  • Writer's pictureSkepticast

Wildfires: Whatever Happened to Smokey the Bear?

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

"It's a boy!" One of the largest wildfires in California history was started by a gender reveal party.


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This week, we’re talking about wildfires. California has set a new record. In 2020, 4 million acres have burned in California, double the previous record for most land burned in a year.

Side note: both in writing and speaking, it shall be called California. I will not call it “Cali.” If I ever hear you say “Michi, Wisc-y or Tex-y”, maybe I’ll consider calling it Cali. Until then, please put some respect on my home state’s name.

If you feel like you’ve been hearing more about wildfires lately, well you’re right. Forestry management experts might be, literally, the hottest people on the planet right now (See what we did there? Cuz like...they’re on fire?). Seriously, we tried to find some forestry management experts to interview for our show, but they were all too busy being interviewed for inferior, niche sites like The Washington Post.

And it’s not just California. 2019 and 2020 have seen some of the craziest wildfire seasons in history. Last August, the Amazon experienced their third largest fire ever. It got so bad, Leonardo DiCaprio took a quick break from taking college juniors to Lake Como to promote awareness for the fires in the Amazon. No, not the time a warehouse worker asked for the day off and Jeff Bezos lit them on fire, we’re talking about the actual Amazon.

Australia faced their largest bushfires on record, though it’s possible that fire was lit by Facebook’s The Dodo so they could get more koala rescue videos...TBD on that one. Even Alaska and Siberia had over 100 large fires last year. But we’re gonna focus on California in this episode, where the sky is a Trump-tinted orange and Armageddon sounds like sweet release.

So, let’s talk about wildfires. At any given point in time, some part of the world is on fire. Literally and figuratively, but let’s focus on the literal part.

Wildfires can burn more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the flames can be as high as 160 feet. They can create winds so powerful that they create their own weather systems. But wildfires have been increasing in both frequency and severity. According to National Geographic, on average, 72,400 wildfires cleared 7 million acres of U.S. land each year since 2000. That’s double what we saw 1990s.

Fires in California are now routinely called megafires, due to their large size, and the August Complex, which is not a Brooklyn based indie band but in fact a fire that started this past summer, has now been termed a “giga-fire”, and is the first fire in modern history to have burned more than 1 million acres.

A recent NPR article said: “Seven of the most destructive wildfires in California history have occurred just in the past 13 months.” The only problem? That was from 2018. Flashforward to today and five of the six largest fires in California happened in 2020. You don’t have to be a data scientist to understand that trend.

Wildfires - so hot right now

Next, let’s talk about why wildfires have been on the rise. To start a fire, you need three things: oxygen, fuel, and a spark.

Thanks to climate change, fuel has become more abundant. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, the global average temperature has increased 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. In places like California, it’s increased 3 degrees Fahrenheit. This dry weather increases the number of combustible materials that can be used as fuel. In other words, a lot more shit can catch on fire now.

Snow has also been melting earlier in the year, giving plants more time to dry out. Studies show that climate change has caused 50-75% of the drying out of burnable materials. In California, the official wildfire season has increased by 85 days due to dry conditions.

And to the smug East Coasters, you’re not off the hook here either. First of all, you’re smug about a state being on fire, so take a long look in the mirror and wonder what kind of children you’ll raise. Second, a recent New York Times study found that climate change is increasingly putting the foliage in the northeast under stress, leading to an increased risk of disease, destruction, and yes, fires. Have you noticed how the leaves are turning colors earlier in the season recently? Doesn’t it feel like basic bitch season starts earlier and earlier each year? It does! Because the trees, like us anytime we say “please listen to our podcast,” are dying inside.

Back to wildfires -- human causes of sparks have also increased. 4% of fires start naturally, usually by lightning. But it varies greatly from region to region. For example, According to Carbon Brief and the University of Colorado, in Canada, 55% of wildfires are started by lightning, but in the US, 84% of wildfires are started by humans.

No...that’s not a joke. 84% of wildfires are started by humans. Mostly straight people...but we’ll return to why we should all be heterophobic in a bit.

Human causes of wildfires have included unattended campfires, disposed cigarettes, arson, downed power lines, car accidents, and of course, gender reveal parties. In California, the hot Santa Ana winds can carry sparks for miles. The El Dorado Fire, which burned for several months in Southern California this summer, started because a family throwing a gender reveal party decided to use pyrotechnic devices. Straight people are so obsessed with gender they’d rather light California on fire for sixty days than learn someone’s pronouns.

(Sidenote on gender reveals... the person who started them has now denounced them...And her child now identifies as a different gender from the one she “revealed.”)

Whatever happened to Smokey the Bear?

Next, we’ll talk about some things we can do about it. You know how when you’re a kid, they tell you that you can’t fight fire with fire? Turns out, you can. Just another lie we are told in childhood, along with Santa being real and our government being effective.

One of the ways that places like California prevent wildfires is through a method called “prescribed burning.” Prescribed burns are controlled fires intentionally set to help get rid of dried shrubs and other vegetation that could be susceptible to spreading wildfires. These controlled burns can also promote growth of certain valuable trees, for example by stimulating certain coniferous cones that release their seeds when heat is applied.

Coniferous Cone I love sounds like a kindly woman in a Dutch children’s story before you realize she’s actually a witch who wants to lock them in a cage and feast on their liver or something.

California currently does controlled burns of around 125 thousands acres a year; however, some experts say the state would benefit from increasing that to 1 million acres. That would be burning over one Rhode Island a year.

In recent years, the state has underutilized prescribed burns for many reasons. For one, the point of a controlled burn is that you can control it. With increasing temperatures, the conditions to run controlled burns are diminishing. That means there’s a risk the government could light something on fire and then completely lose control of it - that’s a go-to in American foreign policy of course, but hasn’t been tried domestically quite yet.

Another issue is that pressure for more housing (and more money) means real estate development has pushed closer to areas at higher risk of burn, given lower land costs. As more people live in those areas, controlled burns can be harmful to air quality and present risks to life and private property. This is especially shocking because real estate developers are always so concerned about things like welfare, equity and the environment....(laughs in Jared Kushner).

The biggest issue is the cost. It would cost billions each year to up the program of prescribed burns, split between several different local and federal authorities. More than half the forest in California is under federal authorities, and if the fire begins on federal land, the federal government pays. But the federal government is Trump, and he literally never pays...unless it’s a porn star.

But the cost of not getting this under control promises to be much greater. The USDA’s National Forest Service is already spending more than $2B, over half its budget, on fighting wildfires each year. This does not include prevention strategies like prescribed burns. California’s Department of Forestry, CALFIRE, already blows through its annual budget of over $2.5 billion. And in three of the last four years, wildfire damage has been north of $10B.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office in California has found numerous other structural challenges as well. Lack of clarity and coordination between government agencies and private landowners makes it confusing as to who is responsible for different aspects of wildfire management.

In California, utility companies are responsible for any economic damage that results from their equipment, which means that private homeowners and their insurance companies can sometimes be less vigilant about fireproofing their homes even if they live in high fire risk areas, since they can reliably collect damages from the utility companies.

And that’s that on moral hazard. Periodt (did we do that right?).

Economic conditions exacerbated by the pandemic have caused the state to stop investing in infrastructure programs that would help prevent future damage. In January, Governor Newsom announced $100 million in state and federal money to help homeowners replace roofs and make their homes more fire-resistant, particularly in low-income communities. However, they had to suspend the program in May due to budget cuts.

To have any chance of getting the fires under control, we’ll need to start with increased cooperation between various local, state, and federal governments and private citizens. We need to curb development of and prevent humans from moving into areas prone to forest fires so that we can do more controlled burns. And we need to make large, difficult investments to protect ourselves from deadly wildfires in the future.

Personally of course, we need to do our part to help prevent wildfires. The first thing is to do everything we can to help slow climate change. Reduce your use of fossil fuels through flights and gas-guzzling cars, switch to renewable energy where you can, and reduce your consumption of meat. When you’re out camping, extinguish any fire pits before you leave, and don’t throw cigarettes out of your window. Limit your use of fireworks, and only use them in clear areas if you must.

And if your friend invites you to their gender reveal party...get new friends.


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