Bill Steigerwald

As several of Southern California's wind-whipped wildfires still burned on Thursday, we called conservation biologist and forest researcher Dr. Reese Halter to learn more about the 20 fires that had destroyed 2,000 homes, forced the evacuation of more than 500,000 people and left at least eight dead. Halter, the author of "Wild Weather: The Truth Behind Global Warming," is the founder and president of Global Forest Science (, a forest conservation and research institute that helps private landholders, governments and corporations around the world "make better ecological decisions." He was in Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs.

Q: Are these fires unprecedented?

A: In modern times, yes. There are at least five things that have collided here to make this all happen:

No. 1, a warmer Earth is a drier Earth. In the West and Southwest, a drier Earth translates to more fires. Since 1877, the inception of record-keeping, we’ve not seen it this dry. How dry is it? June 30 to June 30 is our moisture year. We normally get 16.25 inches of rainfall every year. Last year we had a hair over 3.5 inches of precipitation. We’ve had trace amounts since the 30th of June. So now were into -- what’s that, 16 coming into 17 months? -- and it’s buck dry.

The second thing is, with the drought we’ve got a water situation. The Los Angeles basin -- 16 million people, industry and a little bit of agriculture -- draws the brunt of its drinking water from the eastern Sierras. We call it the snowpack. Last year was the second-lowest recording of snowfall since we’ve been keeping records. We’ve got a water problem.

Thirdly, we’ve got a forest mismanagement problem. Over the last 80 years, a "Smokey the Bear" fire-suppression policy has stopped Mother Nature’s natural fire cycle. At varying intervals, because the forest types vary from valley bottom to mountain, we’d be safe to say on average fire shows itself every 20 years or so. So that is at least four fire cycles we’ve suppressed. Think of fire like this: Fire is Mother Nature’s cleansing broom along the forest floor and in her forests. When we stop that agent of change, the first thing that she has done is carpeted the forest floor with hundreds of millions of white fir and incense-cedar seedlings and saplings. They are highly combustible.

We’ve also got another factor: hundreds and hundreds of thousands of homeowners backed into canyons at what we call this "urban-wildland interface."

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..