Experts have told The Los Angeles Times that vegetation overgrowth and a lack of prescribed burns are to blame for the size and rapid growth of recent California megafires such as the Dixie Fire.
Scott Stephens, a UC Berkeley professor of fire science, said that overgrown forest conditions were the primary factor driving the size and growth of the Dixie Fire. Stephens said that while rising temperatures and drought were also contributing factors, “the biggest piece I’d still say is the condition of the forest. I’d say it’s 75% of the problem.”
Stephens said that more controlled burns, as well as reintroducing Indigenous peoples’ traditional, cultural burns which modern fire suppression policies have largely eradicated, may help stop fires in California from spiraling out of control in the future.
Native American tribes in California have long practiced the art of controlled burning which removes underbrush and encourages the growth of plants which supply acorns, materials for basket-weaving and more.
“We don’t put fire on the ground and not know how it’s going to turn out,” North Fork Mono tribal chairman Ron Goode told NPR. Goode said that once Western settlers showed up in California, “they didn’t understand fire in the sense of the tool that it could be… so they brought in suppression.”
20th century fire policy in America has centered around fire suppression. Fire suppression rules have largely prevented Indigenous communities from conducting traditional burns. Fire suppression policies have also caused California to be overrun by thick vegetation which dries out in the summer, creating the perfect conditions for megafires like the Dixie Fire.
Stanford University’s Chris Field told The Times that this century of fire suppression was the most critical factor in the Dixie Fire’s rapid growth.
“It’s a really scary confirmation of the extensiveness of the fuel buildup… any place you drop a match or a burning ember, you get a new fire,” Field said, adding that the buildup of dry, drought-stricken vegetation was easily ignited by Dixie Fire embers, allowing the fire to “carve its own path like a glacier.”
The Dixie Fire ended up highlighting both the impacts of prescribed burns and a lack of prescribed burns. Chris Ziegler, an incident spokesman for the Dixie Fire’s west zone, told The Times that prescribed burns, such as one this spring in Warner Valley, as well as burn scars from previous nearby wildfires such as the Walker, Hog, Sheep and Beckwourth Complex fires, helped protect a community and prevent the Dixie Fire from growing even larger than it did.
The Dixie Fire has burned 963,309 acres of land in Butte, Plumas, Shasta, Tehama and Lassen Counties, according to CAL FIRE, destroying 1,329 structures and leading to one fatality. PG&E has acknowledged the fire may have started when a tree contacted its power lines. Those who have property damaged or destroyed by fires that utilities start in California are able to recover damages in lawsuits from those utilities, who are liable for the damages under the California constitution.