Finding Resilience in the Face of Change
Across much of California and the Pacific Northwest, wildfires are beginning earlier and burning later, challenging our very understanding of ‘fire season.’ As of this week, 77 uncontained fires are burning across the U.S., with the Dixie and Caldor Fires measuring the largest. However frightening, these sprawling, seemingly relentless wildfires are hardly an issue of the American West. Just look at Greece's island of Evia, Siberia’s Sakha Republic, or the Turkish provinces.
While the intensity and breadth of such fires remain perplexing, the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the matter are far less. It’s the deeply unpopular, somehow divisive, culprit we’ve all grown up watching: climate change. You know how it goes. Warmer average temperatures, coupled with variable precipitation, yields conditions dry enough to unnerve Smokey, and Gavin Newsom.
As was the case in 2016 when the IPCC published their Assessment Report (and the five before that), the science is firm. This isn’t new and unmanageable wildfires are a mere symptom. In summarizing the 2016 IPCC Report, Professor Kimberly Nicholas tweeted, and was recently retweeted with the publication of the 2021 report, “It’s warming. It’s us. We’re sure. It’s bad. But we can fix it.” That we can, and that we must. But how?
Approaches of the past have often flip-flopped between risk mitigation by way of prescribed burns – a preferred method amongst fire and forest scientists – and outright fire suppression. Methodology aside, though, it’s clear that approaches rooted in basic resilience and containment are woefully insufficient.
Fundamentally speaking, our responses are products of historical inertia. As noted by McWethy et.al in Rethinking Resilience to Wildfire, “An additional unrecognized weakness is a near singular intent to maintain social-ecological systems in static or historical states that are no longer sustainable given observed and predicted changes...” Put differently, we humans have long reverted to what we have perceived as a steady-state, even when we have known that no such thing truly exists in nature.
As time has told, we typically opt to ‘build back’ instead of ‘build forward.’ Whether it be in the case of physically rebuilding on land pummeled by record-breaking hurricane after record-breaking hurricane, or, more alarmingly, not building back at all, as is the case with municipal recycling efforts closing due to rising costs and contamination, among other reasons.
With systemic issues such as these, adaptive and transformative approaches to resilience offer a glimmer of hope. In the context of wildfires, this will require active and aggressive woodland management in the near term, while future responses will demand changes in the way we exist alongside wildfires. Be it through redesigning communal living in fire-prone areas or facilitating ecological transformations in the wake of fires, our management strategies must account for and mitigate novel fire activity.
While the planet is quite literally on fire at the moment, there is an eventual and perhaps surprising sense of peace that comes with understanding our partiality to "how things were" and the danger of continuing on as if such were possible. Under such dire circumstances, we have the opportunity to bring forth fundamentally new systems and the hindsight needed to not just right our wrongs, but promote socio-ecological resilience at scale.