Yes, there will be millions of collective sighs as the deadliest pandemic in a century begins to abate and a more open summer kicks off. But summer also means the beginning of the wildfire season in the American West – a slew of deadly disasters lying in wait. Last year was the worst fire season in California’s recorded history and drought-like conditions portend another challenging summer. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Professor Crystal Kolden of the University of California Merced, a wildfire expert and former firefighter. We talk about current preparations for impending fires, where she believes resources should be directed, and the ethical dilemma presented by California’s reliance on inmate firefighters.
Narrator 0:02 This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
Crystal Kolden (CK) 0:25 The reality is that aircraft are one of the least cost effective ways to mitigate wildfire disasters. But the public loves to see you know, 740 sevens in dc 10s dropping lots and lots of pink retardant.
Narrator 0:42 Yes, there will be millions of collective size as the deadliest pandemic in a century begins to abate, and a more open summer kicks off. But some are also means the beginning of the wildfire season in the American West. a slew of deadly disasters lying in wait. Last year was the worst fire season in California is recorded history and drought like conditions portend another challenging summer. This week on Sea Change Radio we speak to Professor Crystal Kolden of the University of California Merced, a wildfire expert and former firefighter. We talk about the current preparations for impending fires, where she believes resources should be directed. And the ethical dilemma presented by California’s reliance on inmate firefighters.
Alex Wise (AW) 1:52 I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Crystal Kolden. Crystal is an assistant professor at the management of complex systems department at the University of California at Merced. Crystal, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
Crystal Kolden (CK) – Thanks so much for having me.
AW – So California and the rest of the West is about to embark on a very scary time, again, maybe worse than what we had last year around this time of year in terms of dryness, if you can summarize what this last winter meant for the potential fuels that we could see for wildfires this season.
CK 2:31 Yeah, so 2021 is shaping up to be very conducive to wildfire growth and rapid wildfire growth. And the reason for that stems from both the winter conditions that we experienced in California and also from how warm and dry the spring has been leading into early summer. Because California, of course, was in a drought and 2020 that was part of what helped fuel the the large 2020 fire season. And really, across the entire Southwestern us. The last winter was very dry. In some places, it was record dry. Most of the snowpack that the southwestern states rely on for water and particularly for the runoff filling our reservoirs in the spring. That snowpack was at near all time record lows in April 1, which is when they generally measure it for the year. So it really contributed to not just the you know, the trees and shrubs and a lot of the large plants sort of already being really dry. And even in a lot of cases, you know, kind of in that wilty state relatively early in the season. But it also makes the soil very, very dry. And that soil and the surface litter the sticks and the leaves and all those sorts of things. You know, it’s those small fuels and how quickly they dry out in the spring that really fuel that rapid fire growth once we get into summer. So this year, you know, as we see these early season heat waves like we just had across the Southwest in the last week or so, the those early season heat waves. Normally a lot of that energy is used to melt that snowpack off or to convert moisture in the soil to water vapor to basically help evaporate it and that actually helps dissipate some of that energy. But in the last couple weeks, the soils are already dry because it was such a dry winner. And the snowpack has already gone. So instead that all of that heat energy went straight into drying out the vegetation. And that really contributes to priming us for large fire growth, if we get ignitions, and that that’s really one of the key unknowns going into the 2021 fire season, and in parts of California in the southwest, Arizona is already seeing some fires, you know, that is the uncertainty is when those ignitions going to are going to happen, how many of those ignitions will happen at the same time, because if you get a lot of ignitions, all at once, then you have to sort of prioritize which fires, you’re going to jump on first. And the other ones have a chance to grow, right. And then it also sort of, you know primed for a long, dry summer, which if we start to get wind events, later in the summer and an early fall, that will really facilitate large fire growth. So right now, the unknown is when there will be ignitions, where there will be in how many, but the conditions are ripe for incredibly rapid fire growth and some pretty dangerous fire behavior.
AW 6:21 – So Crystal, we often talk about wildfires here on Sea Change Radio while they’re burning, because I tend to think about it when you look out and there’s bad air, and we tend to be a little reactive. You and your team are focusing on proactive approaches. What are you and your team doing right now to try to mitigate fires before they happen?
CK 6:47 As much as we have tried to we cannot stop wildfires, we can’t stop them from igniting, and we can’t stop them from happening. And part of the reason that we have really large wildfires in the West is from a century of trying to suppress a wildfire and creating really dense overgrown forests that are incredibly unhealthy, that have a lot of dying trees, and that are really just ripe for having enormous amounts of fuel burn and these large wildfires. So our work is really focused on understanding what communities can do what actually works for different types of communities, to mitigate wildfire, and then figuring out how we implement that. Not all communities have the same types of wildfire risks. Not all communities have the same types of infrastructure that is at risk of burning down. And you know, communities are really different in terms of what types of population they have and what some of their basic demographics are. So figuring out what works for different types of communities, and how to actually go about implementing the actions that we know work to mitigate wildfire disasters. That’s what we focus on. And it’s a year round effort, and then involves a lot of social science and a lot of communication and education of the public.
AW 8:27 I’m glad you brought up social science, because it sometimes feels like these wildfires can affect vulnerable populations that already couldn’t bear something so disastrous, like these natural disasters. How can scientists kind of overrule the wealthy class that can influence the political class more? How are you and your team able to kind of keep the playing field level, so to speak.
CK 8:56 So a big piece of what we look at in our science is trying to understand where the most vulnerable communities actually are and what their specific vulnerabilities are. So for example, there are some communities that are particularly vulnerable to wildfire because they are retirement communities. And you know, a really tragic example of this is the 2018 campfire that burned down most of the town of Paradise in California and 85 people were killed. 80% of the people killed in that fire were over 65 years old, because it was a community of older people, many of whom had retired to paradise, many of whom couldn’t afford to live other places in their retirement and many of whom were disabled. So you have sort of this trifecta of socio economic limitations on where you can live and how much money you can spend to make your home or your property less susceptible to burning what you can actually afford to live in. And then when that fire started in 2018, there were a lot of issues for older or more mobility, unlimited individuals in trying to evacuate. So that was a really particularly vulnerable population. And there hadn’t really been a an acknowledgement of that, or an effort to plan specifically to help that most vulnerable population. And so part of what we are doing in our science is trying to figure out alright, where are these communities at specifically, because the states and the federal government are pouring enormous amounts of money into treating the fuels that that help wildfires grow large, right, they’re putting in what we call fire breaks or fuel breaks. They’re trying to do all sorts of community planning. And they don’t have any sort of guidance on well, where are the places that we should prioritize, because that’s where the most vulnerable communities are. And so we’re trying to actually develop those maps and those spatial representations of, okay, where, where are these populations at? And then how are they vulnerable? And what are the specific things that we can do to make them less vulnerable, right. And so an example from 2020 in California, and actually a lot of the West in 2020, is that the migrant farmworkers many of whom are undocumented, many of whom are already sort of living on the very edge. They were throughout the summer and fall of 2020 in the fields, picking the produce that drives California’s economy and being subjected to horrible hazardous smoke conditions without very much if any of a mitigation strategy, right to provide masks or to provide any sort of air filtration or to give those individuals, you know, alternative options for income so that they did not compromise their health in the fields. And these are obviously individuals that also already have inequities in health care, right, because they’re migrants, and because they’re farmworkers, people of color population to generally have already inequities in health care that are then exacerbated by these hazardous smoke conditions. So identifying the that a community that is terribly adversely impacted by wildfires and wildfire smoke, and then trying to identify specific mitigation strategies that can help reduce that negative impact, because ultimately, it’s for the societal good, right? Those individuals end up having really long term impacts to the healthcare system. And so there’s this much larger societal good issue about supporting those particularly vulnerable communities, and mitigating some of those specific impacts to them.
AW 15:01 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking to Crystal Kolden. She’s an assistant professor in the management of complex systems department at the University of California at Merced said. So the money that the state has pledged recently, to prepare for wildfires, if you were the budget manager for it, how would you want to see those funds appropriately apportioned? How much can we do to spend our way past this problem?
CK 15:32 We can’t, we cannot spend our way out of the wildfire problem. In terms of prevention, and suppression, what we can do is spend our way out of the wildfire disaster problem by focusing on mitigation, the thing that I just always try and focus on is that, you know, the state has this obsession with prevention and commits such a huge proportion of its budget, you know, there’s just not any real acknowledgement that they must commit a much larger portion of budget to mitigation, and far less to just trying to expand the machine. And a big piece of, you know, a big piece of budget goes to aircraft. I mean, they’re talking about buying new aircraft. And the reality is that aircraft are the one of the least cost effective ways to mitigate wildfire disasters, they’re very effective in specific situations. And it’s usually the smaller planes that when working in a group can do really effective work. But the public loves to see, you know, 740 sevens in dc 10s, dropping lots and lots of pink retardant. And unfortunately, it’s spectacular to see. But in a lot of situations as a as a whole, it’s a lot less effective. And it’s definitely not very cost effective.
AW 17:07 So you were a firefighter before becoming a professor, correct?
AW Can you speak to that experience and how it informs your work today?
CK 17:19 Yeah, so I, straight out of college, I took a job with the US Forest Service in California. And I was able to join a fire engine, which in, you know, for most viewers, they may have seen on the news at some point that there is a green, big green fire engines driving around in the summer, and I would drive one of those big green fire engines. And let’s be honest, I was not a very good firefighter. I am not an athletic individual. But what I learned was that for a lot of the places that we were trying to fight fire, we were never going to win that battle. And for a lot of the places that I was assigned to fight fire, I asked myself as someone who had had some Ecological Education in college, you know, why are we trying to fight fire here? Why are we trying to fight this losing battle, in some of these places where we’re really putting a lot of lives at risk, in terms of firefighters, you know, we are really doing potentially some major damage to these landscapes and in many of those landscapes, you know, the the ecology of that land is such that it actually needs fire to be healthy. So that is, you know, that is one of the key things that informed the way I approach my research today. The other one is that, you know, on the line, it was really about making sure that everybody is putting life safety first and foremost. So we were there not to necessarily save lives the way that you think about, you know, your city firefighters busting in to a burning building and saving lives. But, you know, we were trying to make sure that, that fires where we’re not going to impact the cities down the hill, and that we were all doing so in a way that was not going to result in any fatalities. And that that’s the thing that I think about when I do my work today is this is still about making sure that first and foremost we’re saving lives. And second, you know that we are really focused on doing what’s best for The land. Because if we are focused on making sure that we’re doing things in a way that is producing healthy, healthy ecosystems, then we will meet both of our goals at once right will save lives, and will make our ecosystems healthy and sustainable.
AW 20:19 I don’t know how much firsthand experience you got as a wildfire fighter encountering inmates who fight fires. But maybe you can speak to this situation that far too many Americans don’t know anything about they don’t know that people we send a prison end up trying to protect us in some of the most dangerous wildfires in the world.
CK 20:43 Yeah, so when I was a firefighter, for the US Forest Service, all of the large wildfires that I was assigned to, I worked side by side with inmates from the California Department of Corrections. And this is not I think, widely known outside of California that inmates in California Department of Corrections camps, some of our sort of what we think of is the the lowest risk inmates are assigned to or they technically are volunteering for firefighter duty. I, you know, I don’t know how, how much of it is volunteering, versus more feeling obligated to be a part of a crew? That’s a great question for someone who’s been on the inside. But I worked with them on several of the fires that I worked on. And you know, the thing that always impressed me was that they were incredibly dedicated to the work that they were doing. And they, you know, they were people that I felt safe working alongside, I actually specifically remember working on a fire in some incredibly steep terrain and in Monterey County, and I took a horrible nasty fall, I tripped on a rock and went down a hill. And you know, immediately there were several inmate firefighters helping me up and making sure I was okay. And they were just really hardworking kind individuals, you know, and we shared fire camp with them. And they’re all they’re all there, you know, trying to do the same types of work that that we were doing as employees for the Forest Service. But of course, it wasn’t equal because they were getting paid almost nothing. And they were still incarcerated.
AW 22:39 And did they have the same level of equipment? Were they protected to the same degree that you were?
CK 22:46 They definitely have personal protective equipment, because that’s required for all firefighters on the line. And I don’t know to what extent their equipment was sort of, you know, lesser quality equipment than than ours was in Mansur always wearing this, this orange Nomex that distinguishes them from Forest Service and other firefighter type crews. And so, you know, I don’t know enough about whether that was of an inferior quality or whether their equipment was inferior, it definitely has to meet a minimum standard for them to be on the the fire line. And you know, given the price of firefighting boots, I don’t know whether their boots are quite up to the level that that many of us were. That’s a great question. But, you know, but the thing is, they’re still doing the same, incredibly hard work. And if they’re not being protected to the same level, then that is, that is a concern. And it is, you know, something that has raised a lot of concerns among the firefighting community, particularly because it has always been a real challenge for inmates to then get those same firefighting jobs once they are released. And, you know, despite the fact that they have this substantial amount of experience, doing firefighting and being out on these large fire events, they sort of have this this stigma that makes it very, very difficult to get hired. In fact, it was almost impossible to hire inmates until some recent changes and in the law, but that that has been a you know, a long concern. In terms of equity issues, they’re still doing the same difficult job there have been several inmates that have been killed on wildfires. And of course, you know, they don’t get any of the types of fanfare accolades or family benefits that that other firefighters do. If that happens. weapons or if they’re injured? You know, and there’s this real question about how appropriate is it for the state of California to be using inmates to fight fires in the first place.
AW 25:10 Yeah, I guess the calculus that policymakers make is that well, you know, we might be paying them $5 an hour, but they could get a year or two taken off of their sentence. So that calculus by the prisoners who volunteer for this, right, they don’t they’re not forced into fighting fires, I guess it’s probably a desirable job, if it gets you to freedom sooner, I would imagine. But that comes with some real ethical complexities, as you mentioned.
CK 25:39 Well, there’s always a question of how much of it is actually a choice. Because if the trade off for being released sooner is that you have to do this very risky, you know, life threatening job? How much of that is an ethically appropriate trade off?
AW 26:01 Exactly, yes. It’s like, “Well, they volunteered for this… except you’re gonna be in prison an extra year.” You’ve got to put that into context, obviously. It really redefines volunteerism.
CK 26:13 It also speaks to California’s inability to acknowledge that they need more fully paid firefighters. Right, because there is this heavy reliance on inmate crews in the state of California for wildfires. And you know, this really came to a head in 2020. During the record California fire season, when many of those inmate crews were not available, because there was COVID in the fire camps. And because there was widespread COVID outbreaks across the California Department of Corrections prison system. So you had this, you know, real situation where you’ve got an extreme fire season, incredibly dry conditions hot, an unusual lightning event that started you know, literally hundreds of new small fires across a huge swath of the state in August. And the inmate crews that normally the state is immediately relying on to come in and do a lot of that hard work are not available. And there was literally sort of this crisis for several weeks where there were simply not enough firefighters available to fight the fires. And and the fact that the state is so heavily relying on those inmate crews just speaks to not being you know, not being prepared in other ways to face the realities of what it takes to manage wildfire in the state.
AW 27:57 Crystal Kolden thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
CK 28:01 Thank you so much for having me.
Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise, additional music by Ernest Ranglin and the Grateful Dead. Check out our website at SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.