Markowitz: Wildfires

Nov 20, 2018

Thanksgiving’s my favorite holiday. I love to relax with family and friends, share a meal, and reflect on our many blessings.

But at the same time, I’m mindful of those who are struggling to cope with recent losses – like the nearly 300,000 families in California who’ll be spending the holiday wondering whether their homes and businesses survived; or with at least 76 people confirmed dead and more than 1000 people unaccounted for, the many families missing – and fearing for - loved ones.

California has always experienced wildfires, but in recent years it’s gotten much worse. For every 20 fires in the ‘70s, there's a hundred today. And the fires destroy twice as much land as they used to – leaving many people to ask why.

Experts point to a number of factors. Forest management plays a role. It’s counter-intuitive, but small fires clear the understory of vegetation so the past practice of immediately extinguishing every fire has made today’s fires worse. Better management uses prescribed burns, brush removal and the harvest of smaller trees that burn easily to reduce wildfire risk.

Also, 85% of wildfires are human-caused, in many cases by malfunctioning electrical equipment or downed power lines. When energy infrastructure is extended to serve new development in fire-prone regions, it increases the fire risk, and with more homes and businesses to protect, it's more costly to fight the fires and to rebuild afterwards. Last year, California spent one-point-eight billion dollars fighting fires.

But the wildfires must still be seen as a climate change wake-up call.

Climate change delays the winter rains which extends the fire season; and when dry conditions meet the gusty winds of fall, small fires turn into major disasters. It also means warmer temperatures and extreme variations in snow and rain. Wet years supercharge vegetation growth that becomes tinder for fires in the subsequent dry years. And because fires move more quickly when they’re fueled by dry brush, these fires are more destructive.

This Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of the outpouring of support Vermonters received from all across the country after we were devastated by Tropical Storm Irene. Now it’s the displaced families in California who need help as they fight the remaining fires and work to rebuild their lives.