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David Schmalz here, breathing a sigh of relief now that I can say, with confidence, that this year’s fire season is over. 

It was eight years ago, almost to the day, that I first wrote about a wildfire for the Weekly, after the Pfeiffer Fire ignited late on a Sunday night on Dec. 15, 2013. By the time I arrived the next morning, Big Sur was blanketed in smoke, hiding the helicopters I could hear but not see. 

Martha Karstens, the since-retired chief of the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade (whose home was among the first to burn in that fire), said that day that the last time the affected area had burned was 1907. The vegetation was so thick, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Andrew Madsen told me, that the fire had actually reversed direction in several places to burn brush and trees that it passed over on its first run. And the National Weather Service reported that Big Sur had received only 7.27 inches of rain in 2013—the historical average was 44.88.

It was already clear at that time that the Forest Service’s century-long policy of fire suppression had set a ticking time-bomb. Since then, the climate has continued to get warmer and the rainfall less consistent—we are now fully entrenched in the drought and deluge cycle that will only further entrench itself in the century to come. 

Fire has been on my mind lately not only because of the anniversary of the Pfeiffer Fire, or because the recent atmospheric river appears to have ended this year’s fire season. It’s because this past weekend, on a camping trip with friends in Big Sur, I hiked through part of the burn scar of the 2020 Dolan Fire on the Kirk Creek Trail, and what I found was a vibrant landscape of thriving chaparral and blackened redwoods that were scarred, but for the most part, very much alive. 

It was a reminder that, irrespective of how wildfires start, fire is natural. It was also a reminder that when we let fires burn, the impact of the next fire in that area won’t be as devastating—the Forest Service’s final update on the Dolan Fire, which started in August of 2020 but wasn’t fully contained until December, says, “Recent burn scars, such as the 2016 Soberanes [Fire], have helped reduce fire spread. In the 2008 fire scar areas, where shrub growth is recent, the fuels are not receptive.” 

One would think that by now the Forest Service has learned its lesson—fire suppression is futile, and only makes future fires potentially more damaging to the landscape—but a recent article in The New Yorker made clear that’s not the case. In her Nov. 8 piece titled “What It’s Like to Fight a Megafire,” journalist M.R. O’Connor—who trained as a wildland firefighter and embedded with firefighters in Northern California earlier this year—laid out some startling facts, and one part in particular stopped me on the page: 

“Preventing fuels from burning today preserves them to burn tomorrow,” O’Connor writes. “As the stockpile grows, fires burn longer and with greater ferocity. In California alone, an estimated twenty million acres—an area the size of Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey combined—would need to burn to eliminate the so-called fire deficit created by a century of suppression. Federal agencies acknowledge the problem, but bureaucratic risk aversion and budget constraints, among other things, have stalled the adoption of new approaches, leaving America both burning and fire-starved.” 

O’Connor’s piece also makes clear that the Forest Service’s bureaucratic risk aversion has become every bit as entrenched as our current drought-deluge cycle: In the summer, the Forest Service’s chief Randy Moses, O’Connor writes, “described America’s wildfires as a ‘national crisis’; he’d also called for a policy of full suppression and for the scaling back of prescribed burning.”

I found that part particularly demoralizing—have we learned nothing?—but I do agree wildfires are a crisis. 

Unfortunately, it’s a crisis of our own making that we’ll be living with for the rest of our lives. Aside from aggressively enacting climate change mitigations and building upward rather than outward, it seems the best thing we can do is just let it burn.

-David Schmalz, staff writer, david@mcweekly.com

P.S. The Monterey County Gives! campaign is currently underway through Dec. 31. Today's Spotlight is Coastal Kids Home Care, which is raising funds to expand mental health services for hundreds of medically fragile children. Learn about their important work—and that of 169 other nonprofits—in this year's campaign, and please donate to support their efforts. 

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(1) comment

Walter Wagner

The original population reportedly used fire extensively. Then western culture began fire suppression policy. There is a need to step back from that policy, but protect structures that have been built in the area. Tough task.

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