What Should We Know About Wildfires in California
By Rolf Skar
The Camp Fire raging in Northern California is now the most devastating and deadly fire in the state's recorded history. Simultaneously, deadly and destructive fires are burning in Southern California, as the Woolsey and Hill fires have engulfed iconic areas of Malibu and West Hills. With dozens dead, hundreds missing and thousands of structures destroyed, our hearts go out to those impacted across the region.
Dramatic media stories tend to highlight what's currently happening with firefighting efforts, but little attention is spent looking at the suite of issues that can make wildfires bigger, faster and more dangerous to people and our nation's treasured wildlands.
Worse, some politicians and corporations spread misinformation and false solutions when fires burn in an attempt to use these emergency situations to push an anti-environmental agenda. Trump and his Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke are parroting talking points of a logging industry that is trying to gut environmental safeguards and increase taxpayer subsidized logging on public lands.
The following list is not a specific analysis of the current disasters, but rather a wider look at trends impacting the occurrence of forest and wildland fires today.
Satellite image of the wildfires currently affecting much of Southern California.NASA
1. Industrial Logging has Increased Fire Risk
Industrial logging has dramatically increased fires and fire risk by removing large commercially-valuable trees—the very trees which are the most resistant to fire, and which create shade. Logging older trees and opening up the forest canopy makes things hotter and drier, and more prone to fire. The sticks and wood left over from logging, called "slash," often remain behind for years on the ground like kindling.
Industrial logging also requires roads. Many thousands of old, unused logging roads riddle the U.S. National Forests, serving as superhighways for flammable, invasive weeds. In addition, these roads increase accidental and intentional human fires in our forests. The legacy of taxpayer subsidized logging on our public lands and industrial logging on private lands has left us with a mess that will take many generations to fix.
Solution: Refocus the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management away from subsidized industrial logging to jobs focused on ecological restoration and preventative fire safety.
2. Smokey the Bear Was Wrong
A "put out every fire" approach to wildland fire management for decades has left us with a fire deficit which can fuel unusually big, hot fires. Many forests in the West have "skipped" fires that naturally would have occurred due to overly-aggressive fire suppression. Ecologically speaking, these forests need to burn, as they have for thousands of years, to sustain a cycle of life, death, and renewal. We need to protect people and property, but extinguishing every wildland fire in a region that needs them to regenerate only, well, backfires over time.
There are a whole host of things fires do for natural forests to keep them healthy, and to fuel the cycle of life, death, and regeneration that sustained forests for thousands of years before Europeans showed up. Heavy-handed fire suppression was strongly supported by the logging industry whose spokespersons now, ironically, call for more aggressive logging to remedy the mistake they helped perpetrate on our forests for decades.
Solution: Prioritize fire-fighting to protect human lives and property; don't risk the lives of firefighters and waste taxpayer money on fires that are not threats to communities. And leave fire-affected forests alone to allow for natural regeneration—some of the most ecologically important forests in the American West are intact post-fire forests that provide vital wildlife habitat and are home to numerous imperiled species, such as Great Gray Owls, California Spotted Owls and Black-backed Woodpeckers.
A firefighting jet drops fire retardant during the Holy Fire near Lake Elsinore, California. Thick smoke and ash spewing from the fire prompted air quality warnings. David McNew / Greenpeace
3. Smokey the Bear Was (Sorta) Right
No matter how hot or dry, forests don't spontaneously burst into flames. An ignition source is needed to get a fire going. In nature, it's really only lightning strikes that serve as ignitions. And lightning often comes with rain. However, human activity is really good at starting fires in a wide variety of ways, from campfires, cigarette butts, and fireworks to sparks from trailer hitch chains dragging on a road. It is also important to recognize that urban infrastructure needs to be properly maintained to prevent it from creating ignitions. A faulty power line has the potential to create a spark.
These human-caused ignitions often happen at times of year when natural ignitions would rarely occur (such as extreme droughts when lightning storms are relatively rare). Humans are so good at starting fires that more than 80 percent of wildland fires in the American West are ignited by human activity.
Solution: Reduce human-caused fire ignitions by closing and removing unneeded logging roads, and continue public education efforts (we can agree on this, Smokey). In addition, Smokey should also bring his message to corporations and governments that are in charge of the faulty infrastructure that oftentimes sparks these fires.
4. Climate Change Can Make the Problems Humans Have Created Worse
Though it is difficult to point to any fire and say climate change has single-handedly caused it, there is broad scientific consensus that global warming will bring hotter, drier conditions to the American West, and set the stage for more extreme fire events. This, combined with decades of unsustainable logging, road-building, and fire suppression could push forests beyond their capacity to deal with fire.
Solution: Conserve natural forests and foster a just transition into renewable energy sources to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, including bigger, more dangerous fires in the future.
Part of the skyrocketing cost of wildland fire fighting has resulted from expanded human development into what once was remote, fire-prone landscapes. With more homes and buildings in hot-zones, there is more need for aggressive firefighting when fires do take place. Just as building in a flood-plain or seismically-active area, homes and human infrastructure in fire-prone areas should be built and maintained with fire safety in mind.
Solution: Be smart about development, and be fire-ready. Prioritize prescribed burns and mechanical fuel removal in and around communities where it will do the most good. Fund these efforts, and make sure rich and poor alike can live in fire-safe homes. Prevention is worth much more, in terms of human life, forest health, firefighter safety and taxpayer dollars than desperate last-ditch fire fighting.
In October 2017, Northern California had a series of 250 wildfires that started burning across the state. The wildfires broke out throughout Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte, and Solano Counties during severe fire weather conditions.European Space Agency
6. Fire-Fighting Has Changed—and It Now Involves a Lot More Burning
Forest fire fighting has evolved over time based on technology, science and, perhaps most importantly, politics. The U.S. government's approach to fire once was one of full-on direct attack—an approach that is costly and dangerous. Now, an informal policy known as "back off and backfire" dominates. Backfires, which are set by fire fighting teams, burn up fuel from a fire break so that when the wildfire reaches that zone, it has little to burn. Backfires are now a significant percentage of total fire size. Simply put, the U.S. now has a fire fighting strategy that involves making a lot more fire happen—literally "fighting fire with fire". The given fire's total size, regularly reported by the media, rarely includes an acknowledgment that some of the "fire" is actually the "fire fighting." And, the ecological effects of backfires are only starting to be evaluated.
Solution: Since they are two different things, the U.S. government should track and report the difference between "real" fires and backfires (aka "suppression fires"). Federal and local authorities should also fund ecological studies of the effects of backfires to better inform fire suppression and forest management over time.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>