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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

After Paradise: Ethics and the Future of Wildfires in California

A panel discusses the ethics of wildfires

A panel discusses the ethics of wildfires

Efren Oxlaj

A full audience listens to the panelists (from left to right): Bill Murphy, Colin Noyes, Iris Stewart-Frey, C.J. Gabbe, Chris Bacon.

Efren Oxlaj was an Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics during the 2018-19 school year.

What are the ethical issues involved in fighting wildfires? From thoughts about biodiversity and the ethics of using prison labor, to considerations of zoning laws and vulnerable populations living in the wild-urban interface (WUI), the panel gripped a crowded room for well over an hour. The panelists included Santa Clara University professors Chris Bacon, C.J. Gabbe, and Iris Stewart-Frey (all from the Environmental Studies and Science Department), as well as Colin Noyes, a forester from CAL FIRE, and Bill Murphy, a fire captain in the Santa Clara County Fire Department.

There was a clear difference in perspectives regarding approaches to wildfire management. While the wildfire professionals focused on the ethics of wildfire suppression techniques, the professors emphasized other aspects of wildfire and forest management, such as implications for ecosystems and housing. For example, from an ecological perspective, wildfires are a natural part of wildlands, so suppressing them disrupts ecosystems and potentially increases the intensity of future fires. On the other hand, suppression is important for protecting housing in the wildland-urban interface—an area at high risk for wildfires. The wildfire professionals were quick to mention that suppression can be most effective when it is conducted in key areas. They also emphasized that ecological factors are often considered when employing fire suppression.

Perhaps most interesting were the discussions on potential solutions for managing wildfires. One solution often proposed is the use of prescribed burns. Although this may reduce wildfire fuel, it does not make ethical sense on a large scale. As the fire officials stated, employing prescribed burns could lead to smoky skies saturated with elevated levels of particulate matter from the burns. The concern with this idea is clearly the impact on human health. Fire officials explained that the ethical priorities of fire agencies are life, property, and the environment, in that order. Saving people’s lives will be prioritized over protecting property or the ecosystem. Unfortunately, as more people continue to build in areas next to or within undeveloped lands, more property is put at risk and more pristine land is developed. Housing was an important topic for one of the professors who explained that the extent and number of people in the WUI has been increasing. One solution to this might be to remove people from the WUI, but with rising housing prices in urban places, this is not feasible. One of the fire practitioners mentioned that modern houses built in the WUI are more resistant to wildfires than older ones.

Closing thoughts varied according to the panelists. While one professor reminded us to consider vulnerable populations in the WUI, another one stated that it’s important to consider the events post wildfires. From an ecological perspective, one panelist commented about the significant difference in California’s landscape compared to pre-colonial times: the grasses covering California’s landscape now are not native. Relatedly, Native Americans used to conduct periodic controlled burns prior to the arrival of Europeans.  Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that the recent catastrophic wildfires are a snippet of phenomena that has been occurring for centuries. While the future intensity of wildfires may not be entirely certain, it’s important to prepare for the worst. Fire officials believe the best approach is to continue focusing on prevention by conducting fuel reduction, allocating more resources, and preparing communities. Regardless of the approach, the implications on ecosystems, landscapes, and individuals are all important to consider.

Aug 27, 2019