Terry McLaughlin: California burnin’
Two decades ago, in August of 1999, The Los Angeles Times reported that forestry experts had long agreed that “clearing undergrowth would save trees”, and that “years of aggressive firefighting have allowed brush to flourish that would have been cleared away by wildfires.”
In 2002 the Napa Valley Register carried this headline: “Sen. Feinstein blames Sierra Club for blocking wildfire bill.” California Senator Dianne Feinstein had brokered a congressional consensus on legislation which would allow for thinning of overstocked forests close to homes and communities, but could not overcome the resistance of the environmental lobby, who has lobbied and litigated for years to stop efforts to clear the forests through timber harvesting, underbrush removal, and controlled burns.
In the meantime, natural fires were suppressed and the forests continued to become more overgrown. The excessive biomass competed for the same water, soil and light that the healthier trees needed, resulting in many of the trees and much of the underbrush becoming unhealthy.
California Congressman Tom McClintock has worked for decades to reform barriers to responsible forest management. He said, “up until the mid-1970’s, we managed our national forests according to well-established and time-tested forest management practices. But 40 years ago, we replaced these sound management practices with what can only be described as a doctrine of benign neglect … Laws and regulations administered by a growing cadre of ideological zealots in our land management agencies promised to save the environment. The advocates of this doctrine have dominated our law, our policies, our courts and our federal agencies ever since.”
Tim Ingalsbee began working as a wildland firefighter in 1980, earning a doctorate in environmental sociology in 1995. In 2005 he started Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology and has been lobbying Congress ever since, trying to educate anybody who would listen about the misguided fire policy that is leading to today’s mega fires.
In August ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization, interviewed Ingalsbee about the current and tragically deadly fires in California. “It’s horrible.” He says, “to see this happening when the science is so clear and has been clear for years. Every year I warn people: Disaster’s coming. We’ve got to change. And no one listens. And then it happens.”
Overzealous fire suppression is the norm across California in areas where the fire poses little risk to people, structures, or communities. As a result, wildland fuels continue to build up at the same time the climate is growing hotter and drier. Combine these effects and when lightning strikes dry grass, or the wind blows down a power line, an inferno results.
“The fire community, the progressives, are almost in a state of panic,” Ingalsbee said. “There’s only one solution, yet we avoid it. We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load.”
It is estimated that 4.4 to 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. California’s land agency managers burned an average of 30,000 acres a year between 1982 and 1998. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to 13,000 acres.
California passed a few laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more prescribed burns, but few are optimistic that will lead to significant change. Planned burns must follow all environmental compliance rules, including the limit of emission of fine particulate matter, but unfortunately, what we have been experiencing recently far exceeds the air-quality impact from prescribed burns.
In the Sierra Nevada over the past few years, thousands of dollars have been spent to gear up for prescribed burns which were then cancelled for various reasons – too much smog that day from agriculture emissions in the Central Valley, or too many locals complaining about the smoke. For over a month this spring, the US Forest Service cancelled all of its prescribed burns in California, as well as training for the burn bosses, citing COVID-19 concerns.
On Aug. 12, Governor Newsom and the US Forest Service Chief signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding that the state needs more pro-active controlled burns. Tim Ingalsbee’s opinion is that the MOU “Is not worth the paper it’s printed on.” And he is not alone in that assessment. Carl Skinner, who retired in 2014 after 42 years managing and researching fire for the US Forest Service, said “We’ve been talking about how this is where we were headed for decades.”
When ProPublica asked Malcolm North, a research ecologist with the US Forest Service, if there was any meaningful scientific dissent to the idea that California needs to do more controlled burns, his short answer was “None that I know of.”
The economics of responsible forest management requires profitable timber harvesting to play a role, but California has no commercial timber operations on state-owned land. Since 1999, when the environmentalist assault on California’s timber industry began in earnest, the timber industry has shrunk by half. Reviving California’s timber industry would go a long way toward reducing catastrophic fires, which would in turn save lives and livelihoods, but it is unlikely that will occur.
Even with rising temperatures, much could have been done in the past decades to mitigate the effects of any increased fire risks, and experts in fire management have been trying to ring that alarm for years. Their pleas have most often fallen on deaf ears.
Craig Thomas, director of the Fire Restoration Group, has been participating in this conversation for more than thirty years and indicates that unless there is a change in decision-makers, he is not that hopeful for the future. “It’s painful”, said Thomas, and “until different people own the calculator or say how the buttons get pushed, it’s going to stay that way.”
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at email@example.com
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