by Jonah Susskind, ASLA
On November 8, 2018, the town of Paradise, California, was destroyed in a matter of hours as the Camp Fire tore through the region, making history as the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire event ever recorded. Over the past 50 years, California and much of the Western United States and Canada have experienced a dramatic increase in catastrophic wildfires.
Today, the average fire season in these areas is two and a half times longer than it was in 1970. In California, six of the state’s 20 most destructive wildfires have burned in 2020 alone, with associated costs projected to eclipse 20 billion dollars. Experts caution that due to climate change, we have entered a new era of perennial megafires that will only become more destructive and costly in the coming decades. In California, these impending challenges have been magnified by the rapid proliferation of new housing along the outermost edges of metropolitan regions. These areas, known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), represent the fastest growing land use category in the United States, and are currently home to more than 11 million Californians (about a quarter of the state’s total population).
In Paradise and other WUI communities, these parallel risk factors—climate change and increased rural development—have been compounded by the state’s strict enforcement of federal fire suppression policies, aimed at eliminating wildfire from the landscape altogether. While these policies have been relatively effective at minimizing the impacts of wildfire throughout the past century, they have inadvertently created an increasingly hazardous oversupply of fuel in today’s forests. As a result, wildfires are becoming larger and more destructive than ever before, triggering a cascade of challenges related to firefighting operations and urban planning.