Western US’s Worst Drought in 1,200 Years Brings Year-Long Fire Season

Ten weeks after the wind-whipped Marshall fire blasted through Boulder County, Colorado, on December 30, taking with it one man’s life and over 1,000 houses, some residents with the means to do so are now preparing to build back.

The instinct to return home, and the planning, saving and grappling with underinsurance that requires, is unfolding amid the backdrop of the western United States’ worst drought in 1,200 years and what’s morphed into a year-long fire season. Winter wildfires by the names of Emerald and Airport have scorched thousands of acres in California; led to the destruction of over 100 structures in Kansas; and amid this writing, prompted the evacuation of 1,100 houses in the Florida Panhandle — at a time of year when those with intimate knowledge of the cycles of burning and regeneration once relied on wetter and cooler conditions to keep blazes at bay.

According to a February 23 report by the United Nations, extreme wildfires such as the Marshall fire are on track to increase by up to 50 percent by 2100 due to the climate crisis. “We have reached a point where there is no future scenario in our lifetimes that does not see an increase in wildfire,” Molly Mowery, executive director of the Community Wildfire Planning Center, told Truthout. “So we must accept fire and learn to live with it.”

But in Colorado, many looking to build back on their land have no plans — or no ample budget — to upgrade the houses they’ll erect again to be any less flammable than the structures that just burned down.

Colorado is one of just eight states without a minimum building code, and some critics are urging officials to act on this problem. The lack of comprehensive state policy means that fireproofing is not required in Superior and Louisville, the towns that were leveled by fire on December 30, so residents may build back with the same combustible materials.

In contrast with Colorado, Oregon passed a wildfire mitigation bill requiring a set of uniform standards in high-risk areas in 2020, following a slew of destructive fires. Early research shows that enforcing a building code that includes fire-resilient materials may reduce the chance that a building is lost during a wildfire by 40 percent, according to a December 2021 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Beyond the Forest

Numerous factors are at play in the rise of extreme fires, wildfire ecologists say. A heightened concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere as a result of changing climatic conditions, for instance, acts on smaller fires much like blowing on embers to stoke flames in a wood stove. A paper published in February 2022 in Nature found that an increase in nighttime temperatures across burnable areas of the earth has had the overall effect of weakening the “brakes” on wildfires — the overnight window during which a landscape is less flammable, dew sets in and flames die down — thus allowing for even longer, stronger fires.

Another major factor driving the rise in destructive and traumatic fire events is the expansion of human designs — namely, suburbs — into what’s known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where the built environment intermingles with ecosystems lush with flammable vegetation. Nearly a third of all wildfires in the U.S. occur in the WUI — just about all of them caused by human activity such as downed power lines, fireworks, cigarettes, and potentially in the case of the Marshall fire, which is still under investigation, smoldering underground coal mines.

And yet we continue to build in the WUI. According to a study of public records on 200 million parcels accessed through Zillow, between 1992 and 2015, the number of residential homes built in the WUI rose by 32 million. That’s on track to double by 2030.

“The general public tends to think that they aren’t in a fire-prone environment if they don’t see the forest right up against the neighborhood,” John Abatzoglou, head of the University of California Merced’s Climatology Lab, told 5280, of the grassland areas throughout Boulder County. “By thinking that way, we may be increasing the vulnerability of communities that are not in forested environments but are still quite fire-prone,” Abatzoglou said.

As some social scientists point out, the expansion into these hyper-flammable zones is also driven by our system of unencumbered economic growth and the absence of a strong social safety net. Unaffordable housing has pushed some residents to purchase homes or build in the WUI, where it’s cheaper, further expanding burnable structures in the most flammable places.

Often, discussions around resilience to fire center on hardening homes through measures such as surrounding a foundation with gravel and blocking vents with mesh to prevent materials like pine needles and embers from getting inside.

But Sasha Plotnikova, an independent scholar and architect based in Los Angeles, told Truthout that we also need to look at the often-horrendous conditions that working-class tenants and unhoused people are forced into. “As long as the places where we live are understood as commodities, we’ll only further entrench ourselves in a system premised on the exploitation of poor people and natural resources,” Plotnikova said.

The Housing Crisis Is a Fire Factor Too

In Louisville, Colorado, the coal-town-turned-suburb that the Marshall fire leveled, Mirek Maez, general contractor and owner of Cooper Building Group, says supply chain issues and the doubling in cost of building materials means the lumber and metal plates he’s ordering to help residents build back won’t show up for a year and a half.

“People are just ordering and ordering and ordering and well now, we have another 1,000 people ordering,” he told Denver-area NBC-affiliate 9News. “It’s a snowball effect that doesn’t seem to be ending.”

That delay is exacerbating what was already a housing crisis, with former homeowners now displaced by fire stressing the rental market. The spike in demand is continuing to drive up rental prices even further.

“Landlords’ incentive right now is to push out long-time residents, do a superficial renovation, and jack up the rent,” Plotnikova said.

The principle of “degrowth,” which holds that scaling back what we consume could actually improve overall quality of life, could also, perhaps, slow expansion into the most flammable locales. If housing was more accessible and not driven by a growth-oriented economic model, the argument goes, there may not be reason to continue carving out the WUI, “to pull ever-larger swaths of nature into circuits of extraction and production,” as leading degrowth scholar Jason Hickel said of the concept in his book, Less Is More.

Short of system change, however — or while we work towards it — the reality is that houses and buildings must be adapted, or “hardened,” as soon as possible, to prevent loss of life and repeat infernos. Proactive mitigation includes measures such as replacing wood fences with metal ones and retrofitting homes with fire-resistant shingles.

Unlike flood risk, fire risk must be viewed at the micro and the macro scales, Mowery said, “because property owners can make choices that can change their [and their neighbors’] risk.”

Luckily, more data on fire risk is available than ever before. A new map — the first-ever comprehensive tool to chart fire risk — was created by the USDA Forest Service under the direction of Congress in 2021. Signing up for local emergency alerts is also critical, Mowery said, along with tuning in to programs like Ready, Set, Go! and Firewise.

Additionally, Rebecca Samulski, executive director of Fire Adapted Colorado, told Truthout that as long as construction is still occurring in the WUI, which is expected, wildfire professionals can also forge relationships with groups that encourage urban infill over sprawl in the WUI for benefits like transportation and sustainable infrastructure. “We cannot and should not exclude fire from our environments, but we can have wildfires without having wildfire disasters,” Samulski said.

We’ve Done It Before

We tend to think of flame-laden landscapes as uniquely of the Anthropocene — haunting and heartbreaking, which indeed they are. But human communities have actually lived in WUI-like conditions for millennia, according to a 2021 paper coauthored by Christopher Roos, assistant professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University.

“One dimension of the issues that human communities seem to be facing … is a lack of historical perspective,” Roos said at a March 2021 Southwest Fire Science Consortium webinar.

Roos and his coauthors partnered with Jemez Pueblo fire experts as well as members of Hopi, White Mountain Apache and Zuni tribes, to study former “fire wise” villages and towns in the Jemez Plateau, in what is now northern New Mexico. “Fire and smoke would have been as commonplace as birdsong,” Roos said of how local Indigenous groups lived with frequent patches of controlled surface fires, prior to being displaced by settler-colonial dynamics.
“In a matter of decades, modern human-natural systems at the WUI have developed a pathological relationship with fire,” the paper reads.

Place-based, Indigenous-influenced fire management practices have been catching on in some state legislatures. In 2021, California and New Mexico both passed prescribed burn bills. Notably, Colorado’s forest service is one of the only state agencies that is not allowed to conduct prescribed burns under state law, as Colorado Public Radio reported.

Chris Toya, archaeologist and tribal historic preservation officer for the Jemez Pueblo, who spoke alongside Roos, noted that the kind of controlled fires that keep grasses and other combustible growth in check have not occurred on the Jemez Plateau since before the Jemez population was removed to the Village of Walatowa around the turn of the 17th century and his ancestral lands later placed under management by federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. “As far as purposefully putting fire on the ground [now], we’re very limited to pretty much just the areas that we manage down here in the valley,” Toya explained.

More co-management relationships between state and federal agencies and tribes could help with the learning curve. “It all comes down to education,” Toya said. “We can manage our forest more efficiently, that way not only Jemez people can enjoy the forest but also anybody else that wants to be out there to get the benefits of being outdoors.”