Better Forest Management Won’t End Wildfires, But It Can Reduce the Risks

President Donald Trump’s recent comments blaming forest managers for catastrophic California wildfires have been met with outrage and ridicule from the wildland fire and forestry community. Not only were these remarks insensitive to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in California – they also reflected a muddled understanding of the interactions between wildfire and forest management.

As scientists who study forest policy and community-based collaboration, here is how we understand this relationship.

Fire Is a Natural Hazard

In cases like the Camp Fire in Northern California, where low humidity, dry vegetation, hot temperatures and high winds have created extreme fire conditions, there is little that homeowners, forest landowners or land managers can do to affect fire behavior. Fire is a natural hazard, like earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes. It is unique in that it can develop with little warning and last for weeks or even months.

Like other natural hazards, wildfire cannot fully be prevented. However, it is not only possible but urgent to prepare for it, and to get people out of harm’s way when conditions are life-threatening.

It is also increasingly clear that climate change is making these kinds of fires more likely by creating longer fire seasons and hotter and drier conditions. As Toddi Steelman, a prominent fire scientist at Duke University, recently tweeted, “We are only kidding ourselves if we don’t think [a disaster like the Camp Fire] could happen again tomorrow. All the conditions point to more of this in our future.”

Satellite image of smoke from the Camp and Woolsey fires on Nov. 9, 2018. NASA Earth Observatory

Preparing for the Inevitable

Despite this reality, there are ways to prepare for fire. During less extreme fire events, actions by homeowners can reduce the risk that their houses will burn down. By clearing brush around homes,…

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