The History Briefing on California Wildfires and Climate Change: How Historians Contextualized the News

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tags: climate change, California wildfires

Matthew Crawford is an intern with the History News Network.

Last month, as parts of California were engulfed in wildfires, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library narrowly escaped damage. Many historians tweeted their gratitude that the thousands of historical documents housed in the Library were safe. The events that so closely tied climate change and history provide a valuable opportunity to revisit how environmental history can help us understand the ongoing climate crisis.

Historians help us understand wildfires through several different lenses. First, they point out to us previous instances where wildfire policy has been insufficient. Work done by the National History Center explains that American fire policy is rooted in a series of fires in the 1910s, dubbed the “Big Blowup” and the Great Fire of 1910. Over the course of two days, the fire raged across three million acres of virgin timberland in northern Idaho and western Montana. The fire, however, solidified support, funding and a mission for the young Forest Service, but it also laid a misdirected course for fire management

A policy of strict fire suppression was established and lasted well into the 1960s. At first, it worked. But, over time, the absence of fire in these woodland areas led to drier forests, which eventually gave way to more catastrophic fires. Add in a changing climate—with longer, hotter, drier summer — and it’s clear that this strategy cannot be sustained. 

Stephen J. Pyne is a former firefighter, self-described “pyromantic” and expert historian on wildland fires. In his recent article, Winter Isn’t Coming. Prepare for the Pyrocene, Pyne writes that the causes of the fires are not only about the changing climate, or acidifying oceans, but “it’s about how we live on the land. Land use is the other half of the modern dialectic of fire on Earth, and when a people shift to fossil-fuels, they alter the way they inhabit landscapes.” We aren’t suffering from a surplus of bad fires, but actually a famine of good fires. According to Pyne, our ignorance of fire is leading us into a Fire Age, akin to the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. To stop this, we must re-recognize our symbiosis with fire and find a way to adapt the way we live on land. 

Pyne’s plan for managing wildfires is in stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s. In 2018, President Trump raised many eyebrows and angered many with his naive tweets about the wildfires that devastated California that year. “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!” 

Pyne criticized Trump’s remarks, writing that Trump’s claim that the fires result because California hasn’t removed enough trees is wrong and misguided. Further, Pyne wrote that logging is more often a cause of fires than a cure. Ironically, the current California fires are not even located in forests. 

It’s easy to think that if we simply cut down all the trees, a fire would have nothing to burn, but it’s not that simple. Pyne writes that “while all fuel is biomass, not all biomass is available as fuel” When we cut down trees, we leave the little things: branches, leaves, etc. These burn quickly. Think of it like you are having a campfire: If you wish a fire to flash and roar, put in pine needles, dry grass, and kindling. Add a freshly cut green log and the fire will go out.

History can tell us a lot about previous societies have dealt with environmental upheaval. Princeton historians John Haldon and Lee Mordechai, featured in the article “Historians to climate researchers: Let’s talk,” tell us that in examining climate change-related problems, like the California wildfires, we have to look at the convergence of science and history. Societies have been wrecked by their environment (like Pompeii), yet others have learned how to accommodate and even flourish (like societies in the flood plains of the Nile River delta). 

“If I would have to summarize what history has to contribute: it adds nuance to our interpretation of past events,” said Mordechai. In researching the collapse of Mayan society, scientific research told them that the cause was from severe drought, but with the added nuance of history, Haldon and Mordechai  realized that that is not the case. Historical research told them that warfare and socioeconomic policies that sought to divide the rich even more from the poor were more to blame for the civilization’s demise. “Disasters serve, in a way, to emphasize differences in our human society. [After a hazardous event], rich people suffer less.” Natural disasters exacerbate tensions in society but don’t necessarily lead to its demise.

Historical documents give us a backdrop to look at how societies were afflicted by disaster. They unlock the society’s cultural logic. It’s important that we have this background so that we can learn and find new ways for us to withstand environmental upheaval. 

In an effort to bring historians, archaeologists, and paleoclimatologists together, Haldon launched the Climate Change and History Research Institute at Princeton that funds field research, public lectures, and workshops all to look into treating climate change from all angles. The work of the CCHRI goes toward interdisciplinary projects that investigate the impact of climatic changes across the last two millennia on societies, and what we can learn from societal change. 

History cannot be left out of any conversation on fighting climate change. The stories of different societies and their battles give us important details that inform our decisions. If we ignore the ways previous societies adjusted to climate change, we will never be able to solve the crisis. 

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