Wildfires have burned in California for thousands of years, and naturally occurring wildfires have played an integral role in the state’s natural history. For example, many native plant species, including California’s iconic giant sequoias, require fires to reproduce and expand their range. Fires burn dead and decaying plant matter, returning nutrients to soil, and they thin forest canopies and undergrowth, which allows new trees to grow.
California’s first people used controlled wildfires to modify the environment around them to increase favored game species like elk and deer, and to protect themselves from predators. Fires were even used in early warfare.
As forest management techniques improved over the years, prescribed burns have emerged as a promising way to curb wildfires. However, in California, between 1998 and 2018, the number of prescribed burns lagged far behind other areas in the US. Less than 3 percent of all controlled burns in the U.S. occurred in the Golden State, while 70 percent took place in the Southeast. For a fire-prone state like California, that’s not good.
Still, better forest management practices will likely be California’s best option for reducing the intensity of future wildfires, which will likely worsen as weather conditions across the state get warmer and drier (things have been particularly bad the past five years). However, some question whether the state should burn its forests to protect against future catastrophes.
If you’re looking for a good podcast about this, there's this one from North State Public Radio, which is called “Solutions to California’s Wildfire Problem.” The episode takes a critical look at how the state's fire-prone forests have been managed and examine how we can be better land stewards to avoid even worse wildfires in the future.