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Wildfires Are Getting Worse: Time to Rehydrate Our Landscapes

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The west is still in the thick of wildfire season and 2016 is already  one to leave Smoky the Bear in tears. California is seeing a 20 percent  uptick in fires compared to 2015—itself a rough fire year—while a  fast-moving blaze has virtually destroyed the California town of Lower  Lake. A story in today’s Washington Post grimly begins: “California is burning.”
 
While fire is always part of nature, many attribute its increased  frequency and intensity to climate change. Certainly, that makes sense:  longer stretches of warm weather and earlier snowmelt create a  fire-friendly scenario. But what does this connection do for us, beyond  providing another reason to rue the continued assaults on our climate?  For the terms “climate change” and “global warming” elide the dynamics  that create the constellation of factors that, collectively, we call  climate. However, by zeroing in on the ecology of fire-prone regions, we  can find ways to minimize the risk and severity of the fires that  threaten homes and wilderness areas—not to mention the lives of  firefighters.
 
For example, since arid conditions beckon fire, we can ask how  healthy environments maintain moisture. Plentiful rain is one obvious  answer, but equally important is what happens to rain once it falls.  Enter “green water”, or water held in soils. We generally think of  freshwater in terms of lakes and rivers, but two-thirds of rainfall  becomes green water. When rain falls on living soil that’s rich in  organic matter, it stays in the system and sustains plant and microbial  life. Rain that falls on soil depleted by tillage or chemicals streams  away, as does all the rainwater that strikes concrete or asphalt. Dry,  degraded soil (read: dirt) doesn’t absorb water, thirsty though it may  be. For every one percent increase in soil organic matter, soil stores  20,000 gallons of water per acre.
 
Historically, our western landscapes were kept hydrated in part by  beavers. According to Brock Dolman of The WATER Institute’s Bring Back  the Beaver Campaign, the winsome rodents act as “water engineers”. By  building dams they harvest water and direct its flow, and the moist soil  that surrounds the pools yields lush vegetation. Beavers, he says,  serve as ecological “shock absorbers” so that land is less susceptible  to drought and fire. Beavers are native to much of California, and were  numerous prior to the early nineteenth century, when they were mostly  wiped out. (Water-wise, California’s “fur rush” was a bigger deal than  the Gold Rush.) Nationwide, today beavers number around 10 million, down  from an estimated 200 million when Europeans arrived on our shores.
 
One ongoing challenge in staving off conflagrations is keeping down  potential fuel: the dead trees and dried leaves and grasses standing or  laying around, ready to ignite. Australian soil microbiologist Walter  Jehne, whose Regenerate Australia program emphasizes reducing fire risk,  says nature has two basic strategies for dispensing with combustible  material. One is through fire, which tends to perpetuate a fire-prone  regime: favoring plants that require fire for germination or that thrive  on bare ground. (One such tree is the Eucalyptus, which sprouts and  regenerates quickly after fire. Originally from Australia, Eucalyptus,  now pervasive in California, have been implicated in deadly fires,  notably the 1991 Oakland Tunnel fire that killed 25 people.)


"Climate change isn’t merely a looming specter that’s tied up in physics  and the fiat of large corporate and governmental entities," writes  Schwartz. "It’s also about what we do with land." (Photo: Pixabay/CC0)

The  other means of managing fuel is recycling the plant matter  biologically. This could be by way of animals that eat the plants or,  says Jehne,“fungi that can break down litter or fuel into organic matter  and reincorporate it into the soil where it is safe from fire.” Either  way, plant debris is returned to the soil so that the ground becomes a  sponge for rain and dew, thereby creating a fertile environment for  plants to thrive, draw down carbon and cycle water. All of which make  uncontrolled fires less likely.

 
"We can think of climate change as the manifestation of disrupted carbon, water, nutrient and solar cycles."
 

We can think of unbridled wildfires as a result of climate change, as  well as a contributor to it. Extensive bush and grassfires spark a  negative spiral that leads to more greenhouse gas emissions—in  Australia, annual CO2 emissions from fire exceeds that of fossil  fuels—dry, tinderbox conditions, and bare soil unwelcoming to plants and  vulnerable to erosion. When sunlight beams down the ground gets a  direct hit, without the cooling effect of water transpiring through  plants. The alternative scenario, in which the land holds moisture and  would-be fire fuel is processed biologically, encourages what we want:  living soil that stores, rather than releases, carbon; plants providing  food and shelter for animals, birds and insects; water cycling within  the system rather than evaporating or rushing away.
 
In other words, climate change isn’t merely a looming specter that’s  tied up in physics and the fiat of large corporate and governmental  entities. It’s also about what we do with land. Climate dynamics are too  complex to be reduced solely to an equation involving CO2. Rather, we  can think of climate change as the manifestation of disrupted carbon,  water, nutrient and solar cycles. With this approach, we see that  wildfires—along with droughts, floods, heat waves and other problems  associated with climate change—are not inevitable. In my travels  reporting on ecological restoration I’ve seen numerous instances of  people allying with natural processes that hold water on the land, and  seeing multiple benefits including reduced risk and impact of fires.  Chris Henggeler, who manages a parcel in Western Australia the size  equivalent of New York’s five boroughs, has minimized fire damage by  keeping water in springs and creeks longer into the dry season,  installing fire breaks, and making use of dew, which he calls integral  to the “micro-water cycle”.

 
As we look toward future fire seasons, there is indeed much we can do  to douse the flames—and curtail the degree of flames need dousing to  begin with.

Short Presentation of Judith D. Schwartz: is a longtime journalist who lives in Vermont. Her most recent book, Water In Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, has just been published by St. Martin's Press. Her previous book is, Cows Save the Planet (Chelsea Green Publishing).

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