The extended droughts driven by climate change in the western United States are leading to more, increasingly intense and larger average wildfires throughout western forests and shrublands. The climate change-wildfire models that predicted this pattern more than a decade ago are based on good science and are increasingly being validated by real-world trends. Today, the West is experiencing record-setting droughts and heat, and wildfires are indeed more frequent and larger than ever before. Are there any design or technological advances that can help diminish the impact of this new age of the wildfire?
The Burning West
The Southwest US, in particular, is predicted to become much hotter and drier, and scientists have already documented reduced snowpack, less rainfall, hotter temperatures, less coastal fog, and more wildfires throughout the West. It’s a simple process, really, you turn up the heat, reduce the rain, the forests dry out, and wildfires burn and change them. The same process is going on throughout Europe, Chile, parts of Africa, and Australia. And years of fire suppression in many fire-adapted Western forests have led to a build-up of volatile fuels. The plants and animals of the novel communities that emerge from the ashes will be different and their ecological processes, including disturbance regimes like fires and floods, will be too. Already relatively dry regions, like New Mexico and Arizona, will likely lose most of their forests―this process is already well underway with much tragedy, property loss, and ecological and economic damage (for example, downstream water quality and availability will diminish greatly).
American Habits Heighten the Damage
The damaging impacts of climate change-driven wildfires are compounded by more and more people building homes in fire-prone habitats and the reticence of municipalities and wildland fire managers to regulate this train-wreck. Perhaps insurance companies will turn the tide by increasing the rates to match the risk. A long-history of ecologically dysfunctional forest management policies also contribute to the crisis through the ongoing destruction and degradation of moist forest habitats such as old-growth forests, riparian forests, and forests on steep, upper watersheds. And most ‘forest health’ and ‘fuel reduction’ programs are based on spurious science and are largely a cover for continued logging. So the situation is bad and there is very little that can be done about it other than try to conserve as many of the last fragments of old-growth forest as possible, stop logging on public lands altogether, restrict logging on steep slopes anywhere, and restore streamside and upper watershed vegetation. Forests are still going to dry out and burn over much of the landscape no matter what we do.
Design & Technology Balms?
Note the use of the word “balm”, as the West will get burned, literally. Are there any design or technology advances that can help diminish the impact? New technologies are certainly helping firefighters in their important and dangerous work. Their fire modelling systems are increasingly sophisticated and provide real-time information, they employ satellite and aerial drone monitoring of wildfires, and new materials and design have improved last-resort fire shelters for firefighters on the line.
Designing homes to survive wildfires has focused on providing sufficient ‘defensible space’ (clearing vegetation around a home), designing homes to reduce ignition potentials, and constructing houses of fire-resistant materials. That being said, if the fire is big enough and wind-driven, few homes stand a chance. I have seen flame lengths over 100 feet on a wind-driven wildfire and embers fill the air. One ‘fully fire-proofed’ home in Southern California that was adjacent to a windy wildfire burned down because a spark entered an unsecured pet-door. A problem today is that it is expensive to construct homes to make them relatively fire-proof. Insurance companies, however, are making noises about increasing rates and changing the economic equation for homes in high fire-risk areas. At a minimum, homes built in remote, high-fire risk areas should be required to build underground fire shelters to save lives, but the astonishing resistance to requiring tornado shelters even for schools in Tornado Alley suggests that many people loathe regulation and it would be an uphill battle.
Reducing Fire Ignition
Design innovations that could prove to be useful are ones related to fire ignition. While lightning is implicated in starting a number of fires in the West, people are responsible for most fire ignitions, whether accidentally or on purpose. And most fires start along roads. Uphill grades can be designed or retrofitted to have low barriers to keep sparks from shattering catalytic converters from getting into dry brush, well-advertised game cameras at hidden highway pullouts can make arsonists think twice, and new designs for power lines aimed at reducing fried bird ignitions should be immediately applied to old and new transmission lines.
Sadly, innovations in technology and design can do little to stop burning at this point. Even advances that will slow our greenhouse gas input into the atmosphere will have little immediate impact. The momentum of climate change is now so advanced that continental-scale alteration of North American forests is inevitable over a few decades. Stopping logging, foolish forest management policies, and rampant home-building in high-fire risk forests, coupled with watershed restoration are real solutions to lessening the negative effects of our new wildfire regime.
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