In recent years wildfires have gotten worse. In What It’s Like to Fight a Megafire, M. R. O’Connor provides a fascinating discussion of the challenges of managing large wildfires — and the hazards and risks that they present for those who are doing the difficult work at the front lines. People suffer injuries and even die in the course of duty; those engaged in fighting wildfires experience an increased risk of cancer and mental health struggles, leading to depression and suicide for some.
The expression fire paradox here refers to the phenomenon that the stronger and faster wildfires are suppressed, the more severe future wildfires are going to be, because soil and lands remain fuel-laden. In fact that fuel accumulates. From that perspective, fires are helpful in removing fuel, thereby reducing the probability of future fires’ severity.
This directly leads to the notion of debt, of a fire deficit, of a lack of fires that would help use up fuel. That deficit has become substantial. Apparently in California alone, the deficit has grown to a size of an estimated twenty million acres that should experience burning.
If the above is true, then it means that the intuitive approach is accomplishing the desired results only in the short term; it comes with unintended consequences. Different approaches are needed then to produce different outcomes. Prescribed burns – good fires – will likely need to take a much larger role.
I am no fire scientist, nor ecologist and not educated enough in either field or adjacent fields to tell how concerning all of this should be.
This story has stayed with me though. I have read and re-read it, explored and searched for additional information. There is so much there, it is easy to get pulled back in. Admittedly, too, my thoughts have me returning to the fire paradox.
I keep wondering, where else we might see it. I could imagine that one of these days, I will see a project or a process, perhaps at work or at home. Perhaps it is something that is addressed reasonably well, but it appears to recur and it may be getting worse.
I will do a double-take. Hopefully I will pause long enough to remember and then wonder: Maybe this is like that?