Tony Norskog: Three actions to make us safer from fire
July 24, 2018
We have all seen the results of our federal, state and local fire prevention programs. We saw it last year in Santa Rosa and in our own county. We know we'll see it again this year. Our current system of meetings and good advice create a lot of hot air, but no real fire protection.
We grew up with the Smokey Bear mantra, "Only you can prevent forest fires."
Today that old sign is fading and the new speak is "fire management" or "pre-European ecosystem" as most forest workers now agree that the only fire safe forest is one that has burned recently. The eco-friendly suggestion of cut and chip/bio-mass fuel harvest etc. are well intended but have the inherent flaws of not offering the scale of bio mass reduction we need now.
The article on Dec. 22 in The Union by Robert Ingram noted "Virtually every acre in California burned periodically 200 years ago, 2,000 years ago, even 200,000 years ago. All of the physical factors creating and demanding a fire evolved ecosystem remain. Nature continues to double down forcing its return. We screwed it up and every year it gets worse and more volatile."
Our current system of meetings and good advice create a lot of hot air, but no real fire protection.
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But who is managing it?
On the federal level we have the U.S. Forest Service who manage logging and forest health. They set the goal but the local fire districts (Cal Fire) have the "on the street" oversight. All these good folk live in fear of losing their jobs if a prescribed burn gets away. The need to have prescribed burns is huge but there are several factors stopping them from being held on the scale needed to control our overgrown landscape. An article in The Union a month ago noted total prescribed burn acreage in California has been reduced from about 60,000 acres/year to the current level of 20,000 acres per year. This is about 0.03 percent of the 67 million non-agriculture acres in the state.
The first problem is the "risk averse" nature of all the government employee fire prevention people. To expand on the definition that would be "keep your head down and don't make any risky decisions."
If a prescribed burn gets away (and occasionally they will) the person who ordered the burn falls on the sword. Even if they get fired, someone will sue the agency who held the burn and legal fees and hassle dissuade the next decision maker from positive moves to restore the forest to its "occasional fire" health and safe condition. If you want to keep your job as a fire professional our current system encourages you to do nothing preventative all winter and then when the wildfires burn up houses, you work hard for a few weeks and the surviving locals put up signs saying "Thank You Firefighters." It's a win-win except for those who got burned out.
The second issue is the limit of burn days by Air Quality Control. They limit burning to keep the air clear and healthy (their mandate) in the winter when there is less outside recreation but throw up their hands and cry 'act of god' in the summer when massive fires cloud the skies and the smoke does keep people from summer activities. There are only a limited number of safe burn days and they are usually all in the winter when natural humidity slows or limits the spread of a fire. Air Quality Control limits burning to protect our lungs in the winter when we usually aren't out doing physical sports/work and sets us up for more big burns in the summer.
Three things our populace and politicians can do to change the status quo.
One, exonerate any trained forest management personnel from liability for escaped prescribed burns. Accept that they will occasionally escape but the damage done will be minimal relative to the summer wildfire option. Two, exempt Cal Fire prescribed burns from Air Quality limitations (the smoke is going into the air sooner or later). And three, require every county to burn at least 10 percent of its non-ag area every year or the top fire professional in that county gets fired with no pension.
This may seem a bit draconian but these people are "pros," they know fire and we have to encourage them to use it to make us all safer.
Tony Norskog lives in Nevada City.