- Author: Travis M Bean
Looking back at 2017, the devastating wildfires of California seem to have made an impression on the news of the nation. A recent article in the Washington Post offers some stark facts and figures about just how bad our 2017 wildfire season was in terms of lost lives, families left without homes, and the staggering number of acres burned. Both national and local news outlets offered plentiful coverage of these crises, and most have correctly identified the role of very wet conditions in the late winter and early spring in providing the fuel for the fires as well as the role of the subsequent drought allowed these fuels to transform into dry tinder.
Despite this coverage, almost no source has identified the actual fuels involved for this most recent fire season or any other. As a weed scientist, this is a particularly alarming omission, especially when it's highly likely that invasive plants may have been partially responsible for exacerbating the intensity and spatial scale of many, if not most, of 2017's fires…
There appears to be a tendency to lump fires into very broad categories (e.g., “forest” fire, “brush” fire, “wildfire”) that tell managers, the public, and policy makers little about the actual fuel. Without letting the public and policy makers know that our wildfires are being dramatically worsened by fuels from invasive plants, it's difficult to build the political will and support for efforts to do a better job managing these fuels. As scientists and managers, simple data on the fuels involved and the antecedent weather would allow us to provide timely predictions on not just when and where these fires will strike, but also where and when we should be investing in fuel breaks, restoration, or other management actions that can save money, resources, and lives.