With elevated wildfire risk here to stay, a new seminar series explores multiple paths forward

airplane dropping fire retardant
The National Guard drops retardant on the Beckwourth Complex Fire on July 9, 2021, near Frenchman Lake in Northern California. Photo by Airman Magazine via Flickr.


For residents of California and much of the West in general, wildfires have become impossible to ignore. Even for those living outside of fire zones, far from the sites of ignition, hazardous smoke from the blazes spreads so broadly across the region -- and lingers for so long -- that few are spared the public health repercussions of poor air quality. 

Derek Fong, senior research engineer, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering

But there are paths toward a more sustainable future. Derek Fong, a researcher in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who co-directs Stanford's Big Earth Hackathon, has organized a new seminar series to reframe our thinking about the nature and extent of the wildfire crisis and engage the Stanford community in solution-focused conversation.

With the convening power of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, in partnership with the Precourt Institute for Energy, the Center for Sustainability Data Science, and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Fong has assembled an impressive roster of researchers, decision-makers and industry experts to give winter quarter talks on the most pressing issues and challenges related to wildland fires.

In his role as co-director of the Big Earth Hackathon, a competition designed to engage students in solving pressing planetary problems, Fong and co-director Margot Gerritson chose to focus their 2020 contest on wildfire because it was a topic that demanded immediate attention.  "Wildfires are of immediate significance to the everyday experience of many living in California and the West," said Fong. 

He realized after the 2020 competition that the hackathon project teams -- brilliant and creative as they were -- "had only scratched the surface of issues and problems that could use attention and innovation." When he shared what the students had accomplished with colleagues, friends and family, he "became very aware of the broader need to educate people about what has been driving the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires in the past decade." Thus, the idea for the new seminar series was born, highlighting the challenges that current Stanford wildfire researchers find most salient. Earlier this week, Michael Wara launched the program with a talk on spending titled Wildfire Mitigation and Protection: Which Expenses Make the Most Sense? 

A lawyer focused on climate and energy policy, Wara emphasized his belief that we're framing the wildfire problem in the wrong way. "Acres burned is the wrong metric," he stressed. Rather than focus the public's attention on how much land has been scorched, Wara believes communications around wildfire should underscore the toll the blazes take on people and communities.

Michael Wara
Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

For example, Wara called attention to toxic wildfire smoke, which is the main danger fires pose for so many in the Western region. Yet in comparison to talk of how much land has burned, the air quality issue is largely ignored. "Air quality and public health is a huge wildfire problem, and it changes the political salience of the problem," he said.  "Helping people in urban areas understand the connection between wildfire and their health, the health of their children and parents, how vulnerable everyone is to the smoke--" he continued, "helping them understand the risks and options for the state as a whole -- this will help motivate the kind of change and investment that is required."

Current "investments" in the wildfire crisis are going to the wrong places, Wara argued, outlining California's three main "buckets" of spending: Ignition prevention, harm reduction and fire suppression. "We need to spend much more on harm reduction than ignition prevention and fire suppression," he said.

The way forward, for Wara, includes shifting public perception so that people understand the need for fire in ecosystems. California needs its ecosystems to burn, and the state must learn to manage fuel in a way "that mimics the state of the land from pre-European contact," Wara said, noting that Indigenous people knew the importance of low-intensity fires for ecosystem benefit.  Having not fully embraced adequate fuels management practices like prescribed burns, California remains in an outdated Smokey-the-Bear-mindset that views avoiding ignition as the key to fire prevention, Wara said. "So when fires do burn, they burn catastrophically. The tools we used in the 1980s and 1990s aren't working today."

Another important element for moving the needle is improved research on the societal costs of wildfire. Wara called for better science that measures human health impacts and community disruption -- better data on how our wildfire interventions map to the impacts we actually care about. "How do landscape interventions, community hardening and home hardening impact outcomes like structure loss and public health impacts?" he asked.  "We don't have good measures of that right now."

Mary Prunicki
Mary Prunicki, senior research scientist at the Sean Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research

On January 19, Mary Prunicki will delve deeper into the health impacts of wildfire smoke. As a senior research scientist at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research, Prunicki studies how wildfires, as well as other direct and indirect consequences of climate change, are harmful to human health. Prunicki will share her lab's most recent research findings, discuss which populations are most vulnerable, and address research gaps that require further exploration. Zoom access for her lecture can be found here.

While the gravity of climate change has played out dramatically in the West with devastating wildfires and weeks on end of hazardous smoke, the speakers Derek Fong has brought together for the Wildland Fire Seminar Series bring years of research and practice to a problem that many at Stanford are tackling head-on. Derek Fong is hopeful that some of the solutions offered will inspire action, or perhaps participation in the Spring Quarter Wildland Fire Challenge, which he'll also be leading. "I think these talks can offer a realistic look at the problems and issues we are facing with wildfires," he shared. "While I'm certain that none of the speakers will suggest a rosy outlook for the coming few years, I hope they will convince the audience that there are some reasonable action items and solutions possible that can make contending with wildfires and climate change more manageable."

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