A panel of experts said Wednesday that California’s devastating wildfires were caused primarily by “the way we manage lands and develop our landscape” rather than climate change.
Speaking at the annual conference of the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington D.C., Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley, said that perhaps 20 to 25 percent of the wildfire damage resulted from climate change, whereas “75 percent is the way we manage lands and develop our landscape.”
Stephens noted that in past centuries, wildfires were far more widespread than they are today, and played a vital role in California’s ecosystem by helping to thin forests, Thomas Frank reported for E&E News.
In the 18th century, for instance, when California was occupied by indigenous communities, wildfires would burn up some 4.5 million acres a year, said Stephens, whereas from 2013 through 2019, wildfires burned an average of just 935,000 acres annually in California.
Even in 2018, the worst year for California fires, blazes consumed just 2 million acres.
“When you think about what fire used to do in the state, it was so integral to systems. Fire was almost as important as rain to ecosystems,” Stephens said.
Jennifer Montgomery, director of the California Forest Management Task Force, said that climate change did not cause wildfires but “accelerated” them by creating hotter and drier conditions that aggravated naturally occurring blazes.
“Climate change is an amplifier for natural systems and natural occurrences,” Montgomery said.
The comments by Montgomery and Stephens flew in the face of recent assertions by the head of California’s largest power utility who has blamed the wildfires on climate change.
The CEO of PG&E Corp., CEO Bill Johnson, testified at a Senate hearing last month that the wildfires were “a climate-driven experience” caused by extensive drought.
California’s “prolonged, record drought; unprecedented tree mortality; heat waves” and offshore Diablo winds created “a significant and an unforeseen increase in wildfires,” Johnson told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
A December report by California regulators, however, said that PG&E and subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had “failed to maintain an effective inspection and maintenance program to identify and correct hazardous conditions on its transmission lines.”
The utility has acknowledged blame for the massive 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and burned more than 150,000 acres in Northern California.