Right On: California wildfires prompt a Green rethink

Composite image, St. George News

OPINION — The recent spate of California wildfires is a tragedy with over 80 confirmed dead, hundreds missing and billions of dollars in economic losses. Our hearts go out to those who lost loved ones. Thanks are due to the hundreds of brave firefighters who risked their lives fighting walls of flame.

Nature conspires against California, setting up conditions that make frequent fires inevitable. But California’s litigious Greens coupled with over-zealous environmental regulations and poor land-use planning have put lives and property in harm’s way.

The Golden State has over 20 million acres of national forest land. California forest-management experts say that because of pressure from environmentalists, the state’s forests have become dangerously overgrown with small trees and underbrush due to sharply reduced logging.

For decades, environmentalists have taken logging companies to court to prevent commercial logging. Eventually the targeted trees become beetle-infested and no longer profitable to harvest. Then the lawsuit is dropped. California’s forest managers estimate its forests have 129 million dead trees, ready fuel for fires.

Kevin Ryan, a fire consultant and former fire scientist at the U.S. Forest Service explains that dry brush around the bottom of trees provide what is called “ladder fuel,” offering a path for fire to climb from the ground to treetops and intensifying conflagrations by a factor of 10 to 100.

If instead loggers were allowed to selectively harvest, they would clear ladder fuel while generating revenue for both state and national forests. By clearing dead trees and brush, so-called “creeping fires” would be limited to the forest floor rather than California’s recent catastrophic wind-driven “crown fires.”

Forest managers use controlled burns of the creeping-fire variety as a forest management technique. Controlled small forest fires actually prevent devastating widespread forest fires. Many countries do it. California has not.

California restricts timber harvesting and requires myriad permits and environmental impact statements to prune overgrown forests. With typical bureaucratic understatement, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office noted, “Project proponents seeking to conduct activities to improve the health of California’s forests indicate that in some cases, state regulatory requirements can be excessively duplicative, lengthy, and costly.”

Burning tree limbs and brush is likewise restricted. Landowners must obtain air-quality permits from “local air districts, burn permits from local fire agencies, and potentially other permits depending on the location, size, and type of burn,” the LAO explained. “Permits restrict the size of burn piles and vegetation that can be burned, the hours available for burns, and the allowable moisture levels in the material.”

The LAO recommends that California trim its regulations, facilitate timber sales and ease permitting for burning brush and limbs.

Thinning forests could also save Californians billions of gallons of water each year, according to an April study by the National Science Foundation.

California’s environmental left is beginning to see the light. A surprising coalition of environmentalists and forest management advocates has started a new program to thin out forests and clear underbrush.

In 2017, California joined with the U.S. Forest Service and other groups to create the Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative that aims to thin millions of trees from about 2.4 million acres of forest.

The $1 billion, five-year plan to thin forests includes easing rules on logging, a sharp turnaround for California. In parallel, the Trump administration announced a plan to increase the amount of thinning and controlled burns on federal lands.

“Having the fuel loads in forests and wild lands reduced is definitely helpful in modifying fire behavior, but it needs to occur at a much greater scale than we are currently doing,” said Jim Branham, executive officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency participating in the partnership.

A similar program has been started here. Utah’s Department of Natural Resources is working with the U.S. Forest Service on a Million Acre Challenge to reduce fire danger in Utah by 2022.

A second factor exacerbating forest fire devastation across the country might be even more intractable than uncompromising environmentalists: People like to live in and around forests. The now-decimated town of Paradise in Northern California was built among majestic stands of ponderosa pine.

Should state and local governments prohibit development in fire-prone areas? Should substantial treeless buffer areas be created around communities?

Southern California had fires in 1982 similar to this year’s Woolsey fire, when winds were 60 miles per hour. The difference between 1982 and today is a much higher population in these areas. This year many more people were threatened and had to be evacuated.

Closer to home, the recent Brian Head fire illustrates the country’s forest fire dilemma.

Forest management experts point out that forest fires are nature’s way of rejuvenating forests, allowing some species like aspens to flourish in places where they had been crowded out.

But nature’s timetable of fire followed by decades-long renewal isn’t our timetable. We hate to see blackened landscape and we bemoan the loss of homes and personal possessions.

We’re literally playing with fire when we build homes in forests.

Could it be that California environmentalists will lead the way with responsible forest management and land use planning?

Howard Sierer is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: hsierer@stgeorgeutah.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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7 Comments

  • bikeandfish November 29, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    Howard really shouldn’t speak so broadly about a subject he doesn’t know much about.

    ” Controlled small forest fires actually prevent devastating widespread forest fires. Many countries do it. California has not.”

    First, the more common term now is “prescribed burn” given the unfortunate reality that even the best situations can become “uncontrolled.”

    Second, forests in California are treated with prescribed burns as one of the many fuels reduction programs most districts utilize. California lit roughly 60,000 acres in 2018. Doesn’t sound like much until you realize forest agencies have been crippled by low budgets for ages, largely to the accountability of conservative action. You also have to realize even outside California that prescribed burns require extensive planning (years or sometimes more than a decade) and funding and even then their success is contingent on both proper environmental conditions and legal thresholds (air quality, wind and pressures that could affect local populations, etc). As communities that live near these forests we benefit from such considerations.

    https://www.npr.org/2018/11/27/670677071/why-there-are-challenges-to-doing-more-prescribed-burns-as-part-of-forest-manage

    I’m left wondering why a columnist would make such egregiously false claims unless they are pushing an ill-informed narrative and agenda?

    And before he responds, yes, California state also performs prescribed burns and has specific legislation calling for such as part of the Vegetation Management Program:

    http://calfire.ca.gov/resource_mgt/resource_mgt_vegetation

    And no, environmentalists working with various agencies is not surprising. Many such groups have spent years doing so despite stereotypes based off of the most aggressive and narrow-focused of organizations. I would expect Howard to know this as baseline research in a subject he chooses to take on in a column. But all too often such pundits put ideology ahead of nuance.

    But trust me, plenty of environmentalist recognize our forests benefit from active management including thinning and prescribed burning. Our forests and public lands require complex, nuanced management plans to succeed.

    PS….the Brian Head Fire smoldered on SITLA land for days before it blew up and ran. Anyone who knows the area knows how poorly the land was managed and how overgrown and thick it was with undergrowth in dead timber. Makes the conservative narrative about it being environmentalist and USFS fault more complicated than they want though.

    • David November 29, 2018 at 5:01 pm

      Very well stated, and I agree.

    • Kilroywashere November 29, 2018 at 5:24 pm

      Well said B&F. I acknowledge you did your homework on this one Nice counterpoint for the article. See we can agree, just not about secret dossiers procured by freelance intelligent operatives. Not baiting you, but couldnt resist the mention.

      • bikeandfish November 29, 2018 at 5:43 pm

        Fair enough. :^)

    • Comment November 29, 2018 at 6:36 pm

      but… but, but, Obama!!! 🙁

  • utahdiablo November 29, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    Yep….damn straight…but Jerry’s Kids won’t stand for it….so they will continue to suffer for years to come

  • michael bodell November 30, 2018 at 6:17 am

    What’s the matter Howard? Does your right wing cult oath to deny climate change stick in your throat when discussing a topic you know nothing about? Ain’t no forest in Malibu, bud. You can blame drought, you can blame
    the Santa Ana winds, you can blame people for building homes in fire prone areas, but stop the right wing nonsense of blaming environmentalists or liberals or whatever straw man is in right wing vogue these days. Everywhere you look the West is burning. Maybe you should get off your ideological high horse and recognize the complexity of reality

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