The Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University

Fighting fire with FIRE. Preventing Catastrophic California Wildfires

Lead Organization

The Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University

Stanford, California, United States

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To learn more about – or provide significant funding to – this project, please contact Lever for Change.

Project Summary

Decades of fire suppression, climate change, and development in the wildland urban interface have made California’s forests a matchbox. Death tolls from acute exposure and health impacts from smoke inhalation are both climbing. Diverse and disadvantaged populations are among the most vulnerable to wildfire and smoke exposure. Fighting wildfires costs billions, and current practices are allowing risks to grow. With expertise in engineering, ecology, climate science, social science, health, and policy, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment delivers a practical system focused on fuels, ignitions, relocation, and extensive and intensive health impacts (FIRE). The FIRE approach: targets high-risk areas; works directly with communities to recommend action; employs new technology to proactively prevent wildfire; facilitates community planning for relocation; capitalizes on existing resources for fire prevention; and provides guidance on managing health risks. This will benefit all Californians and serve as a model relevant to wildfire threats around the globe.

Problem Statement

In the past year, wildfires have devastated California, killing over 100 people, destroying over 10,000 homes, and causing more than $12 billion in damages. Decades of aggressive fire suppression have allowed vegetation, fuel for fires, to balloon. Development in the wildland urban interface has surged. As of 2010, California had over 11 million residents living in the interface, more than 1/3 of the nation’s total. Ideally, California should manage 3 to 5 million acres per year with prescribed burns and fuel reduction to limit risks. In 2017, less than 100,000 acres were treated. Humans cause wildfires 84% of the time, yet managers have lacked a cost-effective means to target prevention in areas like utilities infrastructure. As the climate warms, the problem of catastrophic wildfires will get much worse. And the impacts are not just local. One week of wildfire smoke in 2017 equaled the yearly particulate matter emissions from all U.S. cars. Wildfire smoke can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems, especially in low-income and diverse communities. Prescribed burns can also contribute to health risks, but these exposures can be managed. Fighting wildfires is extremely expensive, but a systems approach to preventing them can yield multiple benefits – for habitat, jobs, energy resources, and air and water quality, in addition to decreased fire risks. The political will to fight California’s wildfires is high, but the state does not have a systematic approach that integrates fuel reduction, prescribed burns, effective retardants, improvements to structures and communities, and efforts to guard public health.

Solution Overview

Reducing risks from catastrophic wildfire in California requires a systems approach. Effective risk management demands an integrated system of fuels reduction, prescribed burns, and improving structures and communities. Starting with areas where the dangers are greatest, based on vegetation, topography, climate trends, population, and risks from smoke exposure, FIRE prioritizes areas based on risk and develops treatment plans that combine fuel reduction (through mechanical removal and prescribed burns), control of ignitions (through novel retardants and improvements in structures and defensible space), support for relocation (where risk is too great to be managed through other mechanisms), and attention to extensive and intensive health impacts. FIRE will deliver comprehensive recommendations, supporting action by local, state, and federal agencies. Some elements of the FIRE approach are deployed but need to be improved. These include prescribed burns and mechanical fuel reduction. Other elements are new. Specifically, FIRE will pioneer non-toxic fire-retardant delivery technology that can be applied preventatively, allowing firefighters to proactively treat areas at highest risk. In areas deemed candidates for relocation, FIRE will innovate in working with local stakeholders to navigate the complex legal, behavioral, financial, and geographic issues and constraints. FIRE will also innovate in integrating extensive risks of smoke exposure from wildfires and prescribed burns. To measure success over five years, the project will compare trends in actual and projected wildfire, using established modeling techniques. Benefiting diverse communities and millions of Californians, this project will prevent catastrophic wildfires, avoid impacts, and save thousands of homes, and hundreds of lives.

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