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California's Fire Season Extends Beyond Summer Months


What can people do to limit the damage of fire? California's most recent wildfires prompt that question. Governor Jerry Brown says his state needs to prepare for the reality of more devastating fires.


JERRY BROWN: This is not the new normal. This is the new abnormal. And this new abnormal will continue, certainly in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years. And unfortunately, the best science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they're going to intensify.

INSKEEP: So let's discuss what to do with Lenya Quinn-Davidson. She is area fire adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension, which does research on fires. Good morning.


INSKEEP: Let's start with some basic assumptions. Do we have to assume that there will be many wildfires over time? You can't just prevent forest fires. They happen.

QUINN-DAVIDSON: Absolutely. I think we're getting to a point in California where we are understanding that fire really is part of California's future. It's been part of the past, and we've done a decent job of keeping it at bay for a while. But that's got to shift. And it's time to learn to live with fire.

INSKEEP: And when Governor Brown there talks about more intense fires over the next 10, 15, 20 years, is he talking about climate change?

QUINN-DAVIDSON: He is talking about a changing climate. And we're seeing that conditions are shifting in California. We have a longer fire season. We have drier conditions, things - you know, situations that we just really haven't seen before. So we do need to get used to a new set of standards around fire weather and what to expect.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about what can be done about that. There has been discussion of forest management. What exactly is that in this case?

QUINN-DAVIDSON: Well, it can include a number of different approaches. So it can include thinning - actually, you know, removing trees and other brush and shrubs. It can also include using fire - so using prescribed fire, which is using fire as a tool - also, in some cases, allowing wildfires to do good work in places where we can. So there's a whole host of tools that are in that management toolbox.

INSKEEP: Well, when we see something monumental, like the Camp fire, should we presume that something went wrong with forest management?

QUINN-DAVIDSON: You know, the area where the Camp fire was, it really is not a forest management issue. That is an area that's dominated by grass and shrubs and oak woodlands. I think we can presume that it was a whole host of things that led up to that event, including the climate issues but also, you know, building in areas that are hard to plan for fire. There were evacuation challenges, community planning issues, things that people knew about for a while. This was not a surprise in that area - but certainly not just a forest management issue.

INSKEEP: OK, you talked about building in areas that were difficult to deal with fire. You mean, essentially, this wildland-urban interface, as it's called, where millions of people are living out, well, next to nature basically.

QUINN-DAVIDSON: Yeah, exactly. In California, you know, we're known for our beautiful landscapes. But we're also known for our fire-prone areas. And much of California is adapted to frequent fire. And so when we have communities kind of spreading out into those areas and people are building among brush and trees and, you know, we're just not doing enough to protect those communities.

INSKEEP: And what would you have people do to prepare for this kind of intensive fire that perhaps is not being done or not being done enough?

QUINN-DAVIDSON: Well, I mean, I think that there's that home level. That's something, you know, your average citizen can do at that scale. But we really need to be working at a number of scales. So there's the community scale, where we're thinking about evacuation routes. And we're thinking about safety zones within communities. So if you're in a place like Paradise, where you don't have a good exit for people to evacuate, where can people go where they can stay safe?

We need to be thinking about, you know, as we put in new developments, what are the building standards for the actual homes? What are the standards for defensible space around those homes? And then, as we move out beyond the community, how can we do aggressive fuels management around communities to really protect them and buffer them from those wildland areas? And we need to have that full toolbox available to us.

And then, of course, we really, societally, need to be looking at utilities, sources of fire. How do we do prevention? A lot of these major wildfires in the last two years have been, you know, caused by power lines and other infrastructure issues. So we really need to be thinking about how to address those.

INSKEEP: Lenya Quinn-Davidson of the University of California Cooperative Extension. Thanks so much.

QUINN-DAVIDSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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