In what amounted to the deadliest week of wildfires in California’s history last month, at least 42 people died in the state’s northern Napa, Sonoma, Yuba, and Mendocino counties. The fires wiped out more than 220,000 acres amid more than 330 square miles, destroying at least 5,700 homes and businesses. As many as 10,000 firefighters from throughout California and surrounding states battled the fires around the clock.
Additionally, the Pacific Northwest basically went up in smoke this past summer. As of September 5, a full month before the Northern California fires, 7.9 million acres had burned in 2017 across the country—dwarfing the 10-year average of 5.4 million acres for that date.
A few questions stick out after reading such numbers: (1) How and/or why does it keep happening? (2) Is it getting, and will it get, worse? (3) Could it happen on the East Coast?
Answers to the first two questions might look like this: a warming planet and changing weather patterns; poor land management; Nature doing what Nature does; human error and/or stupidity; (yes—it’ll get worse); and the ever-emerging collision between humanity and the planet—in this context referred to as “wildland urban interface.”
The answer to the third question?
“Without a doubt—any minute,” assured James Remuzzi, president and founder of Shepherdstown-based Sustainable Solutions, LLC, a natural resource management company providing services to private landowners, forestry associations, conservation buyers, nonprofits, NGOs, investors, and state and federal agencies—to help generate ecologic and economic returns from their land.
“Locally, you take a place like the Woods Resort in Hedgesville, or Martinsburg, where they’re consistently building up the side of the mountain—there’s really nothing in those heavily wooded communities to prevent it or stop it.”
Remuzzi knows a thing or two about fire. In addition to a cache of services provided by Sustainable Solutions—including Ecosystem Services, Ecological Land Management, Conservation Contracting, and Education & Training—he and his crew are experts in prescribed fire.
“Prescribed fire can be an extremely effective tool for managing ecosystem health,” he explained. “The benefits of a burn plan are many and varied: improving wildlife habitats, preventing catastrophic wildfires, improving access and aesthetics, preparing sites for seeding or planting, controlling insects and disease, improving forage, and perpetuating fire-dependent species.”
Sustainable Solutions utilizes careful planning, specialized equipment, and trained personnel to ensure a safe prescribed fire project from start to finish.
“The bulk of what we’re working on this winter is a project in Long Island—working in fire,” he said. “We’ve got a contract with the Central Pine Barrens of Long Island [a large area of publically protected pine barrens in Suffolk County, New York, on Long Island, covering more than 100,000 acres]. There are six million people on Long Island, and it’s got some of the highest amount of protected lands relative to population in the country.”
Remuzzi knows that most people don’t realize how many acres of pine barrens are even in Long Island—and interspersed in all those barrens (a highly flammable ecosystem meant to burn) are a lot of houses. “This dynamic is called the wildland urban interface. Essentially, we’ve got these wildland areas backing right up against urban-type communities … and, obviously, the fires out West are a perfect example.”
Remuzzi and his team will be in Long Island treating all the fuels around some of these neighborhoods. “You can imagine living in a relatively densely populated neighborhood, and on the other side of the fence is six thousand acres of highly flammable forest,” he described. “It’s overstocked, has no access in and out, and hasn’t had any management done in the last eighty years.”
Sustainable Solutions will go into places like this and “open them up”—providing access channels so that if a fire does break out, the proper folks can actually get to it. “We then create what’s called defensible space around these communities; we’ve essentially buffered out a three-hundred-foot-wide strip around all these communities—thinning out all these fuels, putting in fire lines, and then prepping for the spring.”
In May, they’ll go back in and put “fire on the ground” to burn up all the fine fuels. “With wild fires, most people think it’s the ‘flaming front’ that comes in and slams into buildings and houses and burns everything up,” Remuzzi noted, “but in reality, it’s millions of embers. You’ve got a sixty-foot-tall forest; these massive trees are all on fire. They’re launching these embers of varying sizes, traveling potentially miles. They’re landing in someone’s gutter that’s filled with leaves or in a corner or under a deck—all filled with leaves and similar fuels. It’s the ember attacks that burn down whole neighborhoods like we just witnessed in California.”
The Power of Proactivity
The idea, according to Remuzzi, is that if you create this defensible space, to buffer around the housing, and/or if an ember lands in an area that’s already burned—theoretically, it’s going to be a lot less intense of a wildfire. “Instead of causing this massive conflagration, it will just cause a small fire that firefighters can come in with shovels and put out.”
On the local level, it’s the same idea, he confirmed. “You might not have the same style of tree-torching as out West, because it’s a different type of ecosystem here, but oak leaves love to burn, love to roll. Some communities are ‘fire wise’—which means how you prepare your home for when a wild fire does come.”
As far as what folks can do immediately—locally and beyond—Remuzzi suggests starting at www.firewise.org. “That’s the best resource out there. Just get on and learn. But the first step is recognizing the risk. If you have woods in your back yard, and it’s connected to other woods—a wooded system—you’ve got to recognize that there is an inherent wildfire risk. Now, once you realize that, you can follow the fire wise principles and recommendations.”
Even then, he admitted there’s a bigger problem at play. “The running joke is: How does the U.S. Forest Service fight wildfire? Throw money on it until it rains. Every year, we’re blowing through the budget, and it’s not treated as an emergency, so they can’t appropriate funds. But the true reason we haven’t seen it change—the way we fight fire in the United States—is because it hasn’t happened badly on the East Coast yet. We don’t have these huge wildfires that are rolling down out of the hills every couple of years. We haven’t gotten our butts kicked. Yet.”
The Long Island region, however, does understand the importance of preventative action. “Indeed, they do. Because in 1995, there was the Sunrise Fire,” said Remuzzi. “And, in 2010, there was another huge wildfire. So, they formed a task force, and they decided they had to be more proactive in the way they manage fire in the Central Pine Barrens. That’s how we got hired and looped in—a direct result of a massive wildfire.
“As far as prevention goes, we like to say: more prescribed fire means less wild fire. The reason the West is so screwed up right now is because we’ve been excluding fire from that landscape for a hundred years. It needs to burn, but in a healthy way—or you get what we see now. Decades and decades of hot, dry fuel, waiting to ignite. It’s a time bomb.”
The challenge in the wildland urban interface is that every day, more and more people are moving to these areas, Remuzzi added. As the population goes up, so does the fire hazard.
“Rock Creek Park in D.C. is a perfect example,” he pointed out. “It’s never had a fire. You’ve got eighty years of buildup—in some places, the leaf litter is as deep as your chest. If a kid’s playing with fire in there or something, and it gets out of hand, the next thing you know, you could have a wildfire on your hands—literally inside of D.C. But it could happen anywhere. Especially as the temps keep getting hotter and drier.
“The one thing the East Coast has going for it is relative humidity. It helps things to rot. Though when I was in school, everyone said the Pacific Northwest would never burn. It was too wet, too humid. Well, we just saw the Pacific Northwest literally burn to the ground. The game is changing drastically—and it’s happening in real time.”