CK: When we talk about all these different solutions, what we have had as a sort of status quo is that we are putting all of our funding into fire suppression. There has been no recognition that we are basically burning money when we do this. We are basically putting all funds into suppression. This money would be far better spent on mitigation rather than suppression. And when we say mitigation, we are talking about all these solutions, prescribed fire, home hardening, changing building codes and zones, and reading the way that we live on these landscapes. Even land buybacks in some of the most high-risk areas, as well as updating the electrical grid throughout California and the West, are reasonable considerations.

PB: I am hearing from a number of sources that California is on a long term geological path of desertification. How do you see this in terms of climate change?

CK: In terms of climate change, we are in new territory. We are at the highest level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for as long as humans have existed. The reality is that to address climate change and reduce fossil fuel emissions, this has to happen at really high levels and it’s going to take a long time. We need to look at two-hundred, three-hundred years out, trying to understand how we make this place livable for our kids and grandkids. What I think about, as far as long-term desertification of California, is that it’s been really dry and hot in the past, but we have never had this process occurring with these levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that we do right now. When I look at these factors, I see that it is going to get a heck of a lot worse in California as we move toward these predicted more arid conditions.

The Sugar Fire cresting the Diamond Range from Long Valley in Lassen County on July 9, 2021
The Sugar Fire cresting the Diamond Range from Long Valley in Lassen County on July 9, 2021. By Aubrey Pickerell/FRLT Staff. Photo courtesy FRLT.org

Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, we would still have decades of climate change impacts because of the lag time. But we can look at this landscape and know that climate change is only going to increase the number of disasters unless we mitigate it. So now, we need to look at this landscape as our protection.

We have a population of 40-million people [in California] who are simply not going to vacate the State. So how do we live with it? How do we modify how we live on this landscape? We need to be looking at how we are living on these landscapes so that we are preparing for this changed climate future while we also wrangle with fossil fuel emissions.

Ecologists may have a much more short-term view on this subject.  Ecologists do models where plants can be predicted as potentially being exterminated. We see many predicted ecological models that say these certain species will not be here anymore, and when you ask how they will be gone, they indicate they don’t know. Well, I can tell you they will be lost in catastrophic fires. It’s the same for humans. We are going to have a very different looking future, and we need to figure out how we are going to live in that future. I don’t want to tell my kids, well, basically a thousand people are going to die every day in one hundred years because we couldn’t figure out how to stop fossil fuel emissions.

Humans are really smart. I am amazed by some of the viable solutions I hear from colleagues. It’s getting the political will power to enact them that’s the challenge.

I am always thrilled to talk to political representatives who are willing to recognize that this is not about how we are divided, this is about how we are all humans, just trying to live healthy, successful lives.

Mitigating natural disasters is part of this future for everyone. A lot of the things we talk about as solutions are economic boosters. Rural, local economies in California especially need support—logging and mining are essentially gone. So how do we provide a way to survive in these rural communities?

What if we had an economy that is built on managing this landscape in a way that allows us to thrive and mitigates fire danger while supporting water supplies for rural, urban and agriculture?

This is where we need to look at the micro-scale in local economies to support the mitigation of natural disasters and manage this landscape for human use and availability in the long future.

Black Oak Limbing
Black Oak Limbing courtesy of Acton Arboriculture

What if we create jobs and mitigate fire risk? I am fully ready for this. I would love to see 200-300 people in my own rural community employed doing fire mitigation. Whether it’s doing home hardening or assessing bio programs, such as biomass and utility upgrades—this is important work. It sounds expensive right? But it’s a whole lot more expensive if the whole county burns down.

This is the future we could have: a thriving economy living in this amazing place without the consistent fear of fire. We ourselves burn on our property in late fall and early winter, including limited broadcast fire. I’m not doing this because I’m frightened of wildfire, I am doing this because it empowers me to not live in constant fear of having the entire property burn down. It is so empowering to take control of your own destiny.

Right now, the vast majority of Californians feel that they have no control over their own wildfire destiny. What I’d like to do is to empower them and give them their control back, so that they don’t need to live in fear of wildfire.

Next, we’ll look at ways to prepare for a changing climate future.

This is part three of a four part series of articles based on interviews with pyrogeographer Crystal Kolden.

UC Merced Assistant Professor Crystal Kolden has spent years researching possible solutions to wildfire, including a diverse array of surprising mitigation practices.  Her extensive career includes work as a firefighter, fire ecologist and researcher. Kolden is uniquely qualified to comment on issues relating to fire ecology and fire mitigation. She is a Certified Fire Ecologist by the Association of Fire Ecology. Kolden holds a Ph.D.in geography.

I recently interviewed Kolden who provided in-depth solutions to some of the most troublesome issues of wildfire in this time of increasing climate-change impacts. These solutions are presented in four articles, each presenting mitigation solutions from personal options to broad-ranging policies for social good. These interviews were facilitated by Bioneers.org

Please watch for these recurring features on YubaNet.com