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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

What Ethical Issues Are Involved in Wildfires?

California Wildfires

California Wildfires

Brian Patrick Green

AP Photo/Mike Meadows

I have a special place in my heart for Paradise, California, having gone there several times in my childhood to visit beloved relatives, so the Camp Fire that has devastated the area feels particularly close to me. But it is only one instance of a much larger trend. The Western United States, and indeed the world, has been experiencing worsening wildfire conditions for decades, and in California the situation is particularly bad. Some of this year’s fires, like the Camp Fire, which at times grew at a rate of over one acre per second, cannot be fought, only fled.

Whenever such serious harms are affecting people, and humans have actions we can take to mitigate or adapt to these harms, ethics should be considered. Here I will discuss five areas of ethical importance when thinking about wildfires.

1) Protection of Lives and Property

Fires have killed dozens of people and destroyed tens of billions of dollars in property in recent years in California. The fires are not only immensely destructive, they are also costly to combat. With these factors alone, wildfires should be a major ethical concern, although exactly how to deal with them is still debatable (i.e. Should forests be thinned and how much? How often and where should controlled burns be done? Should grazing and logging be encouraged? Should new housing be barred in certain fire-prone areas? etc.). Additionally, the smoke from fires can have clear negative effects on people even very far away from the fire, causing respiratory distress and disrupting outdoor activities – which, while relatively minor concerns compared to deaths and homes lost, are effects that occur over a much larger area. Given the high harms associated with fires and the high probability of fires occurring every year in California, the risk from wildfires is now perhaps the number one disaster risk in the state – though the next earthquake may reset that calculation.

2) Protection of the Environment

Needless to say, wildfires are not only bad for people and property, but also for the environment. While fire is a completely natural occurrence in wildland areas and is necessary for some ecological processes and renewal of the forest, it also kills trees and animals, pollutes the air and contributes to climate change, and intensifies erosion and muddies waterways when it rains. In order to protect the environment, fire should be managed – insofar as that is possible – in ways that increase the frequency of smaller controlled burns and decrease the frequency of larger disastrous burns. These controlled burns will cause air pollution and damage habitats, but because fire is natural part of ecosystems, we cannot say it is intrinsically bad. Fires cannot be stopped, only managed in a way that increases the likelihood of better results for everyone, including the environment.

3) Land Management

Balancing human and environmental well-being is a major ethical concern when it comes to wildfire management, and one of the major variables that humans can control is how much fuel is in any particular area. Through controlled burns, thinning trees, logging, grazing, controlling the locations of housing developments, and so on, wildfire risks can be reduced, though usually not eliminated (unless the land is completely stripped). While people may not like the idea of actively managing forests to remove trees and brush, burning land, and even grazing goats or other animals to strip away vegetation, if the alternative is a calamitous fire that kills many people and destroys thousands of homes, on balance, the lesser damage of the “managing option” may be well worth it. This is a decision that no one alone can make; it should be made as a community, between all involved parties: residents, government, private interests, firefighters, landowners, environmentalists, etc.

4) Climate Change

All of our forest land management practices may not be enough when the climate itself is working against us. California’s wildlands have grown under the conditions of decades past, when rain and humidity were more reliable, and the world was less warm. Now that climate disruption is becoming a more serious threat, it is time to react with more resolve: Normal firefighting practices are no longer good enough. Sometimes anticipatory actions are the only actions to be done, short of fleeing when a fire actually occurs. There are no tools to fight fires that grow as fast as those in recent years. We can reduce fuel loads now, and prepare in other ways (e.g. fire-resistant construction, hiring more firefighters, improving fire roads and escape routes, etc.).  But once a fire begins, the situation may remain out of control for days. Climate change is going to worsen fire conditions in the coming years, not improve them, so this is only the beginning. What few options we have we should utilize to the fullest, including attempting to reverse climate change as a long-term goal.

5) Responsibility

Lastly, we come to the serious issue of responsibility for wildlands fires. While some wildfires are caused by natural processes such as lightning strikes, the vast majority are caused by human activity, accidental and intentional. Some of the biggest ethical issues with wildfires in California have involved whether Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) should be held strictly liable for fires caused by its electrical equipment. With dozens of lives and billions of dollars at stake, PG&E has sought to reduce its liability through various means, including legislative attempts and turning off electricity during windy weather. But PG&E’s responsibility is only one component in the responsibility equation – PG&E has not caused the drought, stirred the winds, or encouraged brush to accumulate on California’s land. Federal, state, and local governments also have responsibilities concerning local fuel loads, firefighting budgets, the viability of fire roads and escape routes, regulations on grazing and thinning forests, and so on. Private property owners also have responsibilities to reduce fire risk around their homes, and be informed that fire conditions in California have changed and risks vastly increased. Insurance companies also have a responsibility to actually help people after fires and not try to limit their payouts when people are depending on the help of their insurance. Lastly, everyone has a responsibility to help those in need, including those who have been evacuated, who have lost their homes, or who otherwise need assistance. Extreme fire conditions are a threat to all of us, and any of us could be affected; therefore all of us ought to feel sympathy for and be prepared to help those in need, whether through direct acts of kindness or charity, or by simply paying our taxes, some of which go towards fire mitigation and adaptation.

Nov 14, 2018

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