REDDING, Calif. — As of March 28, the California Association of Realtors announced that residential and commercial real estate is officially deemed an

Why are wildfires such a big problem in California and not the rest of the USA?

This is going to sound cruel, but technically speaking, wildfires aren’t a problem. They’re natural and are good for an ecosystem in the long run. In a normal environmental context, houses in wildfire zones are the problem.

Likewise, grizzly bears, wolves and coyotes aren’t a “problem” when they eat your cat or rummage around in your garbage can. They’re just doing what they do.

It’s been said that “earthquakes don’t kill people, architecture does” (and the fires that often followed earthquakes after candles and hearths got knocked over.) One of the biggest recorded earthquakes in North American history hit Missouri in 1812, but didn’t kill hardly anybody because most people there were living in tents and log cabins.

There’ve been fires in California for centuries. Humans just moved into a fire zone.

But to get to your question: historically, there were some enormous wildfires in the Eastern USA and these still occasionally happen. (A bunch of Tennessee burned down last year.) On the Great Plains, lightning strikes used to set off big prairie fires almost every spring. Pioneers sometimes got roasted alive in them. These are rare now because farmers simply destroyed the prairie. Cornfields almost never catch on fire. But back when the Great Plains were natural tallgrass prairie, sights like this weren’t uncommon and were actually an essential part of ecosystem renewal. This photo is from Kansas, where these fires tend to be prescribed burns now. But 200 years ago, this wasn’t an unusual sight:

We also cut down most of the forests back East. (Almost none of the forests there now are “old growth.”) But there were some massive conflagrations in the aftermath of droughts.

Look up the history of the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin (1871), which killed about 2,000 people and is still the deadliest fire in American history. People largely forgot about it because it happened the same night as the Great Chicago Fire as well as the Manistee Fire in Michigan, which burned about two and a half million acres of the Lower Peninsula. Those fires happened because a) Chicago was a pile of wood, oil and animal fat from slaughterhouses just asking for a burn, b) there was a summer-long drought in 1871, and c) North Woods logging wasn’t very responsible, leaving big piles of kindling behind.

California is a lot more arid on a regular basis than the Midwest or East Coast are. Obvious conclusions there. But when droughts happen back East, fires do occur. Or did, historically. But we changed the lay of the land.


EDIT: I should add more about why California fires are so much worse and why they’re so common there.

I’m not an ecologist or a firefighter, but it seems pretty clear to me as a disinterested observer that the U.S. Forest Service, among others, has prioritized fire suppression in California over clearing out the undergrowth of forests, especially in more flammable areas choked with years of flammable debris.

When you have a lot of expensive real estate encroaching on those areas, it becomes more difficult to have the deliberate, prescribed burns they desperately need. My understanding is also the environmental laws (which aren’t bad in themselves), bureaucracy, legalese, and inefficient allocation of funding have made forest management in California less than fully effective.

If undergrowth, etc., wasn’t being cleared out in, let’s say, Pennsylvania, well that’s an totally different issue. Pennsylvania’s a wet state, on the whole. It does have small droughts once in a while — I lived there during a drought in 2016 — but nothing like California. And while you’ll see big areas of states like Pennsylvania, Virginia and Indiana that are technically national forest, those aren’t deemed “untouchable.” National Forests back east are routinely logged on a rational basis. There’s actually a lot of property owners in and around those forests, and they cull trees out of it more often than you think. Responsible property owners definitely attempt to manage undergrowth.

My dad lives out in the country in Indiana on ten acres of field and woodlot. He almost burned his property down one time by having a prescribed fire, but it was the right idea. And since then, he’s been very careful to cull certain trees and dead debris out of the woods around his house. He also goes around other people’s property, takes out dead or sick trees, and uses them for firewood in his stove.

In the oldest forests standing in the Midwest, especially where they come together with what little is left of any sort of prairie or grassland, you can easily see where fires have naturally burned out a lot of the undergrowth. You have huge old oak openings, with towering 100-year-old oak trees and very few smaller trees between them. That’s because of annual, small-scale fires, mostly small grass fires that kill saplings. These natural openings are good. In that ecosystem, it’s one of the marks of a healthy forest.

More importantly, periodic small conflagrations mean that you avoid large conflagrations.

I’m not sure why some California property owners and agencies don’t understand this. Maybe they do, but they just don’t do much about it. I truly don’t know if it’s lethargy, incompetence, or willful ignorance. The takeaway is: they really need to have small fires. Your property or neighborhood may look ugly as hell for a season or even for a few years, but that’s better than the whole place going up in smoke and killing hundreds of people. But apparently, when you own million-dollar homes in paradise, that’s the last thing on your mind.

There’s another analogy here. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The old folks there know hurricanes are coming and that they’re normal events, while some of the newcomers seem to be in denial and live in fantasy land.

If you go into some of the older houses on Ocracoke Island, you’ll see a square hole in the floor. A plug went in there. Back in the day, when a hurricane was coming, people would just the plug out of that hole and the incoming tide would flow through it at a slow pace. Your house would fill up with water, but the weight of the water coming in slowly would pin it down and keep it from being pulled away. Your floor would be ruined, for sure, but generally speaking, you kept your house. (Which, in the old days, weren’t very fancy, anyway.)

It’s small measures like this that prevent larger catastrophes.