The Debate Was a Disaster. But Hey, Climate Change Came Up

Indigenous people in the Western states have a long history of land management practices that involve deliberately setting fires to, in a sense, reset ecosystems. It clears the way for new growth, which attracts large herbivores, which make for good food. Then, without so much fuel to burn, wildfires sparked naturally by lightning don’t burn so intensely. But as more and more people have crowded into the American West, the modern approach has moved away from prevention and toward reaction—defending cities and homes. Firefighting agencies have been under increasing pressure to quickly squelch wildfires to protect human populations. By not letting fires eat through a landscape’s brush, we’ve in turn let the little stuff build up in western forests. A lot of folks call this policy “fire suppression,” a different tactic than outright prevention, since there’s no way to keep all fires from starting. But, says Pyne, the more appropriate term would be fire exclusion. “It’s not just that we’re putting out fires—we’re not lighting them anymore,” he says.

So the West is overgrown, and now it’s unbearably hot. Climate change has caused more intense droughts, desiccating whole landscapes, because a warmer atmosphere sucks more moisture out of plants. With humans pushing developments farther and farther into the wilderness, that means more opportunities for ignition. Power lines are particularly problematic, throwing off sparks that have ignited some of California’s biggest and deadliest blazes, like 2018’s Camp Fire.

Because the landscape is so loaded with fuels, and the climate is so much hotter, even naturally-occurring wildfires can quickly turn into blazes of unprecedented size and intensity. This August, a freak thunderstorm system rolled through California, setting dozens of huge wildfires, including the state’s biggest one ever by far, the August Complex, which has burned nearly a million acres and is not yet 50 percent contained. Indeed, five of California’s six largest recorded fires have burned in the last two months. Up and down the West Coast, fires have been loading the atmosphere with smoke, turning the Bay Area orange and creating an unprecedented public health crisis as the Covid-19 pandemic, extreme heat, and bad air collide.

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“There’s this real desire for a singular villain in the wildfire story right now,” says Swain. “And the difficult part is there isn’t one. Climate change is really important. But it’s not just climate change.” It’s about overdevelopment and fire exclusion, too. “The problem,” he adds, “is that all the contributing factors are acting in the same direction to make the situation significantly worse.”

The solution is multifaceted, fire experts say. Firefighting agencies in the West need to embrace “good” fires, prescribed burns that clear out overgrown and desiccated brush. They need to make defensible space around individual homes and whole towns. Utility companies have got to keep their equipment from malfunctioning and igniting blazes.

As the planet continues to warm, the worst is likely yet to come for the West. But that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless: Changing policies to avoid any warming we can will bring some relief. When Wallace asked Joe Biden about his plans, the former vice president ran through his program to get the country to net zero emissions by building out a green energy infrastructure and adding 500,000 public charging stations to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles. In the process, Biden said, building up the clean energy industry would create a new labor force. “Not only not costing people jobs—creating jobs, creating millions of good-paying jobs,” he said. “Not 15 bucks an hour, but prevailing wage, by having a new infrastructure that in fact is green.”

These were all policies he’d already outlined on his campaign website, sure. But the fact that Wallace bothered to ask was an important moment in the political discourse. Among Democrats, at least, 9 out of 10 say climate change is a major threat to the US. “Which is remarkable given that there are truly other major, very short-term problems that need to be addressed, like in the next year or two,” says Swain. “And yet, it’s still up there at the top of a lot of people’s lists.”

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