LocalHarvest Newsletter, August 29, 2018
Up in Smoke: The West and Wildfire


Map by InciWeb

Welcome back to the LocalHarvest Newsletter.

Although July 2018 was not the hottest on record- that unfortunate data belongs to July 2016, the wildfires this year have been record-busting. For many people suffering the effects, however, this summer's raging wildfires and blistering heat waves stand out as exemplars of the impacts that human-driven global warming are having worldwide. Across the western US, thousands of wildfires have burned more than 2 million acres since January, far above the average for the previous decade. In California, the active Medocino Complex fire is the largest in state recorded history. Three of the largest wildfires in California's history have occurred in the past 12 months. There are 114 large fire incidents burning in the West as I write this article (see updated map here). Millions of acres of farm and ranchland have burned this year from the Pacific coastline to the 100th meridian, which is the typical fire zone (although it is moving further east). But wildfires have popped up in the Southeast as well, where long-term drought has taken its toll. Over 2 million bushels of wheat was recently lost in a fire in my home county of Wasco and the neighboring Sherman county, Oregon. That is just a fraction of the wildfire losses this year, and the fire season is not over. Agricultural losses in the Texas Panhandle and Southern Great Plains last year topped $21 million dollars and over 1.4 million acres burned. It's going to be bad this year, any way you look at it.

Climate change is far from the only reason for these conflagrations in the West, although many of these factors are related. There is also the legacy of 100 years of fire suppression and fuels build-up, pest and disease outbreaks on a massive scale, shorter winters, less snowpack, drier soils and fuels, increased human development in or near wildlands, and human carelessness. According to a recent comprehensive study, 84% of all wildfires are directly ignited by humans. The past 3 decades of human-induced warming has dried out more fuel, doubling the amount of forest burned compared with that from natural climate variability alone (Science, 10 August 2018). What was once a 3-4 month long fire season has become year-round in many places such as California and the desert Southwest. Friends of mine who are wildland firefighters used to work the summers on fire and then take the winters off to go ski, surf, or work other jobs like carpentry. Now they are called up the majority of the year.

Farms and ranches lose trees, crops, and pasture to wildfire. They lose fences, outbuildings, houses, and animals. Many lose their lives trying to protect their livelihoods, despite the intense risks. They also burn up soil carbon, which can decrease productivity for several years into the future. Farms and ranches can work to "fireproof" their properties, to the extent possible. But dry weather, wind, and firestorms will resist even the best fireproofing efforts. With a long view, however, the most innovative, creative, and forward-thinking farms and ranches of this country and globally are focusing their efforts on creating more resilient agricultural ecosystems. This includes managing the adjacent wildlands as well through various methods. It turns out that these practices also make the farms more resistant to climate change and in many cases improve product quality and economic returns.

Some of the best practices to create fire and climate change resilient farms (these can be used on homesteads and homegardens as well):

  • Encourage diversity (across space and time)
  • Crop rotations, cover crops, reduce tillage
  • Fertilizer management and precision agriculture
  • Reduce food waste (and return to soil)
  • Prevent erosion, reduce soil loss
  • Adjust irrigation practices and upgrade equipment
  • Dry farming/fallowing systems (without irrigation)
  • Build soil organic matter/capture carbon
  • Managed, rotational, multi-species grazing
  • Agroforestry (shade, windbreaks, lumber, etc)
  • Perennial agriculture (trees, berries, vines, perennial grasses, etc)
  • Reduce fossil fuel use and practice energy conservation
  • Draft animal power and alternative energy sources
  • Fuels management, selective thinning, and forest grazing
  • Mowing and controlled burning as needed

* For a more in-depth presentation on Climate Change and Resilient Agriculture, please see this slide show I put together a few years ago.

Imagine if practices like these could be done on a landscape level. Then we could witness that landscape becoming more fire-proof, and smaller scale, economically thriving farms would also flourish. Local economies would benefit as well. As Allan Savory, noted agroecologist and livestock farmer stated, "Since the advent of agriculture, humanity has been moving carbon in the wrong direction—out of the soils and into the atmosphere." Catastrophic and widespread wildfire is just another indicator of that mismanagement and sending carbon in the wrong direction. There will always be wildfire and indeed there should be for ecological health. But we have a crisis now on our hands that will take herculean efforts by all of society to turn around.

-Rebecca Thistlethwaite




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