My family lives in fire country in Idaho, Montana, and Washington. A new era of megafires that no amount of firefighting can control is forcing all of us across Cascadia to learn a new way to live with fire. Wildfires have become more frequent, larger in acreage, and more severe,1 and the risk they pose to those in their path is predicted to increase two- to sixfold in most areas of the West.  

More firefighting is not the answer. What my family has discovered, and what wildfire scientist Jack Cohen has been saying for years, is that we cannot avoid extreme wildfires, but we can avoid devastating damages. 

This fall, my mother, with guidance and financial assistance from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (MDNRC), is pruning or removing flammable trees and brush near her home and regularly watering the lawn. Taking these and other measures to keep flames away from homes, schools, and businesses is commonly called “creating defensible space.” She also plans to cover her vents with ⅛-inch metal mesh screens and caulk any gaps where embers could enter the home and ignite it from the inside. Thankfully she already has a metal roof. Her actions toward making the structure itself fire-resistant are referred to as “home hardening.”2 In this and subsequent related articles, I will refer to home hardening and creating defensible space together as “fire hardening.” Short of living in a concrete bunker, we can’t guarantee that our homes will survive a wildfire, but fire hardening them dramatically improves the odds. 

Sleeping bundles lent to Lytton fire evacuees, at Shxwhá:y Village Long House in Chilliwack, British Columbia.

Sleeping bundles lent to Lytton fire evacuees, at Shxwhá:y Village Long House in Chilliwack, British Columbia. Credit: Amy Romer, used with permission.

Fire hardening homes and communities is a cornerstone of climate resilience and adaptation. The question is, how can we make it a new norm? The first step is redefining wildland-urban fire as a home ignition problem, not as a problem of controlling wildfires. Aside from changing how fire is portrayed in the media (ahem, journalists!), shifting funding from suppression to fire hardening would cue this shift in our collective understanding. These funds could pay fire hardening professionals to provide services such as reroofing, covering vents, tree removal, and yard maintenance to homeowners in fire country or reimburse these homeowners’ fire hardening expenses through grants and tax breaks. 

Another step is overcoming some serious market disincentives that prevent developers from building fire-resistant communities and that keep homeowners from fire hardening their existing homes. But adopting and enforcing mandatory wildfire building codes may be the most effective way to overcome market disincentives and to etch the home-hardening norm into our collective consciousness. 

This is the first article in a short series on adapting to our new wildfire normal. These articles will investigate two cornerstones of living with wildfires: creating fire-adapted communities and returning “good fire” to the land. 

Extreme wildfire conditions are here to stay 

Of all the forest fires that ignite in the United States, 97 percent are put out on initial attack. But the 3 percent of fires that escape often grow to more than 100,000 acres, qualifying as “megafires.” There will be more of these large fires that are impossible to stop until the rains come or the wind changes, no matter how many forest patches managers attempt to thin, how many bulldozers push control lines, or how many airtankers dump thousands of gallons of water, each flight-hour costing tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, in their attempts to extinguish the blaze. 

Wildfire suppression expenditures in the United States have increased twentyfold over the past 35 years, hitting $4.5 billion in 2021. Yet community losses continue to rise. When health and productivity costs are included, California’s 2018 fire season cost the US economy some $149 billion. That’s 0.7 percent of US GDP. 

In the wildland-urban interface (WUI), which describes the transition zone between unpeopled areas and developed areas, new homes are going up faster than in any other land type in the United States. This means more potential fire damage and more fires: almost 9 out of 10 wildland fires are caused by people—power lines, equipment, fireworks, campfires, arson, and more.  

Unfortunately for our lungs, Cascadia will have to learn to live with more smoke and extreme wildfires. It is unrealistic to think that we can return to what’s commonly perceived as a “normal” fire regime, one without regular wildfires and smoke.  

It turns out that the Northwest historically had a hotter and drier climate than what was experienced from the 1950s through the 1980s. Those were unusually cool and wet years, leading to fewer fires and fires that were easier to put out. This means that present-day forests are getting hotter and drier weather from two separate causes: both from a natural return to historical pre-1950s climate conditions and also from human-caused climate change. Add on top of that the buildup of forest fuels over a century of fire suppression, and it’s clear that a more smoke- and fire-filled future is unavoidable. 

But we can prepare for this future. If we want to bend the curve of escalating costs and community losses, Cascadians need to fire harden their homes and communities. 

Suppression alone is not the solution

Airplane delivering fire retardant.

Airplane delivering fire retardant. Source: Oregon Department of Forestry, public domain.

Unquestionably, firefighting resources are an invaluable tool, especially when the air is crackling dry and winds are howling. The problem, according to Derek Churchill, Forest Health Scientist for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, is that “suppression alone is just kicking the can down the road; it’s not a long-term solution.” 

Suppression, it turns out, is part of the problem. Unsustainable public expenditures are just the beginning. A century of fire suppression is part of what got us into this dilemma. Churchill explains how fire can clean out tinderbox forest fuels. “In 2021 the Cedar Creek Fire threatened communities in the Methow Valley but now provides some protection,” he said. “The best place to stop a fire is the perimeter of a past fire.” 

“It’s misguided to measure the devastation of wildfire in terms of acres burned, as the media typically do.”

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And many forests need regular fire to stay healthy. For most lands east of the Cascades, forests evolved to depend on regular fire. So it’s misguided to measure the devastation of wildfire in terms of acres burned, as the media typically do.  The footprint of most fires contains lightly, moderately, severely, and unburned forests, all of which can serve different ecological functions.

Fires are catastrophic only when humans are in their path. There is more.  Click on the source.