Stopping the Spread: How California and Neighboring States Can Better Fight Wildfires

By: Jeremy Knight


The title of the piece has been changed to acknowledge that the author has not directly experienced California wildfires. The Journal does not purport to intimately understand the struggles Californians face and we extend our condolences to those who have lost so much in these tragedies.

We have all seen the headlines running about the raging forest fires in California and neighboring states. This past summer, dozens of extremely large forest fires ignited across the state of California, ruining rural and suburban communities, damaging and killing wildlife, and covering cities across the U.S. in a smoggy haze.

Forest fires are common to California and neighboring states, and fire season always poses a challenge to the state, but over the past ten years, the fires have been larger and more destructive than ever before. From 2001 to 2010, California saw 7.03 million acreage of their land destroyed by fires; from 2011 to 2020, the number increased to 10.3 million acres. Yet, 2020 has topped every year with the largest and most destructive forest fires in California’s history: around 3.2 million acres of land being destroyed (as of September). And, to give a sense, San Francisco is “only” 30,000 acres.

Coinciding with traditional attempts to stop the spread of these record-breaking fires, hundreds of firefighters have been deployed, along with calls for mutual aid. However, this reactive means of firefighting has proven to be almost hopeless, for the fires are too large and powerful for humankind to take out. But what if we could be more proactive regarding these uncontrolled forest fires? Indeed, there are two key solutions which could stop some of these fires before they even ignite.

1. Lower the amount of “fuel” (dried vegetation) a fire has by implementing more controlled burns

First off, California must start implementing controlled burns more seriously. One hundred and twenty-five thousand acres of wildlands are prescribed burns each year in California, which is a tiny fraction compared to the rest of the U.S. California must increase these numbers and begin realizing that prescribed, controlled burns are “good fire.”

The concept of controlled burns comes from the Native Americans. Native American tribes would perform annual ceremonial controlled burns which cleared out underbrush and promoted new plant growth. When Western settlers forcibly removed tribes from their land and banned all of their religious ceremonies, however, cultural burning to cultivate land disappeared. The United States government even outlawed the process of ceremonial controlled burns for a century before recognizing its value. In 1850, before California was even a state, the U.S. government passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which banned ceremonial controlled burning in California.  As a result, state and federal authorities only extinguished these wildfires whenever they would pop up.

Without controlled burns, landscapes grow thick with dried-out vegetation from the summer, creating kindling, or “fuel,” for fires to grow extremely large, extremely fast. Western settlers came to the Native’s land with a general fear of fire. This paved the way for the infamous “10 A.M. policy” implemented by the U.S. Forest Service, which ordered all forest fires be put out by “10 A.M. the next day.” Without these regular fires to clear the underbrush and kindling created from dried vegetation, forests quickly became overgrown, creating an environment for any small fire to grow into an extremely large one.  Finally, in 1978, the U.S. Forest Service changed its prescribed fire policy. Some state agencies began making controlled burns a central part of their wildfire management strategies but it is really the south-east states that took, and continue to take, controlled burns seriously. For instance, Florida prescribes over two million acres of controlled burns a year, sixteen times more acreage than California. Yet, California still has a general fear of controlled burns. To reduce the risk of extreme wildfires, like the ones that have recently destroyed rural and urban communities, California must implement a stronger and stricter controlled burn policy

2. Focus more on teaching fire safety rather than implementing stricter open burn policies

Coinciding with the Western fearful perception of fire, California and other states have implemented strict open burn policies. Ultimately, these policies lower one’s interaction with fire and ignition sources, thus decreasing that person’s sense of fire safety. To illustrate, a gender reveal party, which involved a pyrotechnic device, ignited one of the larger fires that damaged California in the late summer.

The Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) of the U.S. Department of the Interior has increased fire restrictions to “prohibit use of all open flames including campfires, BBQ’s and stoves in Northern and Central California.” These preventative measures focus on human-related activities since these activities are the number one cause of wildfires. At first glance, this makes logical sense. Human-related activities start fires, so policies should stop them. What if, however, we took more preventative measures regarding the “human” as opposed to the “activity”?

Most ignition sources, such as the gender-reveal pyrotechnic, already go against California BLM’s fire restrictions, yet people continue to ignite fires. People need to better understand potential of fires and ignition sources. The current method of teaching is analogous to abstinence-only sexual education – it clearly does not work well.

The first, obvious place to start is in schools. Across the country, the National Fire Protection Association sponsors a National Fire Prevention Week in October. During this week, teachers and other public workers teach, typically, elementary-age children the basic facts behind the science of wildfires, as well as discuss wildfire prevention, preparation, and protection. This education, however, only lasts one week. California should implement their own state sponsored wildfire safety program in schools, similar to sexual education or drug awareness.

This approach in public schools is a great start, but what about the parents and others not in the public school system? To truly be effective, this teaching approach must be multi-level. Outside of schools, the state should promote diverse community help groups who would be willing to go around and spread awareness. Ways to spread awareness include event-based fundraisers, such as an auction, which can increase awareness of the cause.  Furthermore, groups like the National Fire Prevention Association can create an ambassador program which would equip local supporters of fire safety with knowledge and resources (i.e., a brochure) to spread awareness and encourage others in the community to be safe with fire. With this approach, diversity must be stressed so people from every community can teach their given community the importance of fire safety.

Lastly, the state could partner with local brands to communicate fire safety to the greater public. The state could give certain incentives to local brands, such as public praise, in return for the local brand including wildfire safety information on their product packaging.

On the other hand, climate change and warming temperatures are making landscapes even more fire-prone. If carbon emissions continue at the current rate, substantial climate change is unavoidable. While the earth cannot be healed from climate change within the next few years, everyone should be aware of the widespread impact carbon emissions have on our planet, and we should all do our best to reverse this change.

While working to reverse or minimize the effects of climate change and global warming is critically important and can make a substantial difference on the frequency and severity of wildfires, that work requires years before significant change can be achieved. Implementing more controlled burns and teaching better fire safety, however, are two measures that California and other states can change almost immediately to make a noticeable difference.


About the Author:  Jeremy Knight is a J.D. candidate for the Class of 2022 at Cornell Law School.  He graduated from University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2019.  Prior to law school, Jeremy was a volunteer firefighter with the Amherst Fire Department. This past summer, Jeremy worked at the Boston Regional Solicitors Office for the Department of Labor.  Jeremy is currently an Associate for the Journal of Law and Public Policy.  Jeremy is also a member of the Criminal Defense Clinic, where he represents local defendants in criminal cases.

Suggested Citation: Jeremy Knight, Teaching Abstinence Does Not Work: How California and Neighboring States can Better Teach Wildfire Safety, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y: The Issue Spotter, (Nov. 13, 2020),