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Here's How California Could Avoid Wildfires (Hint: It's Not Raking)
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=26261"><span class="small">Nathanael Johnson, Grist</span></a>   
Thursday, 22 November 2018 09:45

Johnson writes: "If California doesn't want a future wreathed in wildfire smoke, a report suggests, it will need to permit more tree thinning, more prescribed fires, and more burning of wood for electricity."

Simi Valley fire. (photo: Xinhua/Zhao Hanrong/Getty Images)
Simi Valley fire. (photo: Xinhua/Zhao Hanrong/Getty Images)

Here's How California Could Avoid Wildfires (Hint: It's Not Raking)

By Nathanael Johnson, Grist

22 November 18


ine months ago, when California wasn’t in flames, government investigators warned Governor Jerry Brown that an inferno loomed.

“California’s forests are reaching a breaking point,” the report said.

The report got little media attention at the time, but it’s still worth taking seriously even now. It came from an independent oversight commission set up by the California government to sniff out ways the state was going bad, then make recommendations to Brown and the legislature. The commission spent a year interviewing experts and holding hearings.

If California doesn’t want a future wreathed in wildfire smoke, the report suggests, it will need to permit more tree thinning, more prescribed fires, and more burning of wood for electricity.

Wait a sec, you say. Does that mean President Donald Trump is right to blame the fires on California’s forest management? Hardly. Trump’s suggestion that California needed to spend more time “raking” the forest is comically wrong. The Paradise Camp Fire started on National Forest Land, which is managed by Trump’s own Department of Agriculture, not by California. The severity of the recent fires, burning areas surrounded by brushy chaparral rather than forest, can be blamed more accurately on climate change and also the sprawling development that puts houses in the wilderness.

That said, it’s also true that California — and the rest of the West — needs to change how it manages forests. Ever since the United States took control of the West, people have been putting out fires. Before 1800, California was a pretty smoky place — an estimated 7,000 square miles burned every year (1,000 have burned so far this year. This history of fire suppression has left us with a massive backlog of fuels that we will have to deal with … somehow.

California’s fire report recommended big changes. For starters, the state should flip its traditional mode of suppressing fires and shift to using fire as a tool, it said. That would mean burning in a controlled manner, lighting prescribed fires and firing up biomass electricity generation plants. All that would let the government control the air pollution from blazes, allowing someone to plan and space out fires, instead of having raging wildfires bathe the state in smoke all at once.

The commission also suggested that California supply a greater percentage of the wood it uses for everything from paper to houses. The state has strict sustainability rules for logging but ends up importing 80 to 90 percent of its wood from other places that may have “weaker or nonexistent regulations,” the report said.

In short, California has a lot of hard, dirty work to do in its forests to avoid choking Californians with smoke every year. But here’s the rub: The federal government owns nearly 60 percent of the forest in California. And that, as the authors of the report delicately put it, “complicates a state response.” California has already instituted a suite of programs to restore forests, but Trump has yet to take a rake to the land under federal authority.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 22 November 2018 10:46


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+19 # treerapper 2018-11-22 10:49
As a forestry professional, I can say that thinning trees is not a viable solution from a tree / forest health perspective. On the other hand, prescribed fire is an excellent way of reducing the incidence of out-of-control wildfires. That said, one cannot ignore the devastation that continued drought combined with high winds has wrought. You can thin to your hearts content but if drought continues to plague the State, wildfires will continue to be an issue. Everyone needs to take Climate Change and its primary exacerbaters to heart and make some very hard choices in life style. We need to stop blaming forest management and start curbing our own excesses. For example, in a State plagued by drought, HOW DARE YOU continue relentless fracking activities - using water resources that should belong to agriculture, including the forests and polluting every last drop of water used so it cannot be salvaged or re-used. Unacceptable given the prevailing conditions. In a State plagued by drought, HOW DARE YOU allow Nestlé to steal scant water resources, bottle it in plastic and sell it for a profit. Nestlé should be barred from any access to any water, especially in California. It's these things that need to change, not thinning trees.
+8 # NAVYVET 2018-11-22 11:54
As a working environmentalis t since the late 60s and a volunteer after retirement, thanks for your comment, Treerapper! I fully agree with your alarm siren for global scorching, and your detestation of fracking and frivolous theft of potable water. Leaving the forests alone, allowing people to live there, is not "management," and is doomed to end in massive wildfires. I've read and reread Charles Mann's "1491" and am currently reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz' "An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States." The wise technologies practiced by the Pre-Europeans were ingenious in avoiding private theft and preserving the land for the whole people, even through droughts. Although extended aridity could increase desertification , the Indians learned from those disasters. In their tens of thousands of years they became skilled in land management, including prescribed fire, and established mixed economies, trade route road systems (now paved over) and sea trade from coast to coast, from Central--maybe South--America & the Caribbean into Canada, the Arctic and even to Siberia. We need to learn from the people with the knowhow--not fumble around in ignorance. First, let's give them back millions of acres of stolen, genuinely arable or pasturable, land. Thanks again.
+5 # Texas Aggie 2018-11-22 12:30
To emphasize what tree rapper says, look at any of the photos of the Camp fire. In almost all of them the trees are standing, usually with their leaves still green, while on the ground, everything is gone.

That is what controlled fires do. They eliminate the stuff on the ground that burns without damaging the trees which means that any fires that come along without control will have very little or nothing to feed them. So what is needed is a program that removes the underbrush before it builds up to the point that it causes a conflagration.

Clearcutting, which is what the logging companies want, is not a fire control mechanism. They remove only the tree trunks, leave limbs and branches along with the undergrowth so that after clearcutting, there is a LOT more fuel for a fire than there was before. Thinning means that fuel is removed.
0 # treerapper 2018-11-25 04:43
First, let's remember that we are talking about forests. A forest is a system that has evolved over time and the "underbrush" is part and parcel of the ecosystem of that particular forest. A forest needs SOME underbrush - it can't exist as the system it is without its full complement as underbrush provides habitat for the insects and fauna that are part of the forest system or ecosystem. The "underbrush" is the renewal of the soil and and the entirety that supports.

We have complicated the forest's ability to self manage by inserting ourselves into the forest in all sorts of deleterious ways, causing damage to the entirety of the system and compromising its ability to self-manage as the dynamic system it is. Fire, especially in the west with its fire-dependent tree species, is part of the forest system's cycle. We have learned how to manage fires but that becomes complicated when we insert ourselves and our "stuff" inside the forest.

We have not learned how to co-exist with nature of which we are a part, contrary to Judeo-Christian teachings. There are sustainable forestry practices that have invested the experiences we have gathered over many decades into a better understanding of how forest systems function and how we need to use that information to manage these systems sustainably.

The problem lies in relentless development where it should not happen combined with the aftermath of our excesses that collectively find us courting disaster.
+6 # jmail 2018-11-22 14:22
It's a myth that environmental groups oppose forest management. The Nature Conservancy and others even assist prescribed burns. But logging ("thinning") is as unnatural as fire suppression, and fire suppression is required in areas near development, and development is sprawling almost everywhere. Want to reduce the fuel load? Thin the development, not the trees.

Wildfires are nature's way of clear-cutting development. Look at the photos of burned-out Paradise, California. Most of the trees are still standing, and many are still green, but the houses are totally destroyed. They were the primary fuel load, not the trees, which were already "thinned" to make room for the houses.
+1 # Holmes 2018-11-23 01:10
A case for more fire resistant building systems? That coupled with consistent controlled burning to reduce the fuel load. Also where I live in Australia, having a mosaic of burns provides refuges for some wild life. As well some of our native plants do not germinate unless exposed to smoke so will die out if not burnt and they are short lived plants (say 10-30 years).

Each area will have different properties so the application of systems that work elsewhere may not be the total answer for you.

Note also that "Smokey the Bear" lied re totally preventing any fire so community education will be needed. Fuel accumulation as well as shifts in the proportion of plants in the non burnt area will not necessarily preserve the ecological heritage of the area. Likewise intense fires can be much more destructive to wild live.
0 # Glen 2018-11-23 08:18
Great observation, jmail. This is a conversation I've had with a couple of other people. Problem is, where do all the millions of people in the U.S. live? There is no area without natural disasters of one sort or another. It was fire this time, but there are so many other means of destruction that we have to consider where exactly to live. A lot of wildlife has been lost due to development, and yes, much of it was voluntary, not necessity, but most citizens live where they can or where the jobs are.
0 # treerapper 2018-11-25 04:45
BRAVO - thin the development, not the trees!!!
0 # economagic 2018-11-22 18:04
Bravo for the informed caliber of the comments thus far! One older news site that still has comment forums draws an alarming incidence of ignoramuses and crack pots.

My question, which should be a softball for some here: What is the current state of the art of dealing with pollution--espe cially CO2--from burning wood as fuel? Modern wood heaters have catalytic converters and possibly other systems to block or transform undesirable emissions. But what about burning wood on even a small industrial scale? Just as replacing coal with natural gas does little to reduce CO2 emissions, neither would switching to another carbon-based fuel make much sense unless the chemistry of burning wood is much different from that of burning hydrocarbons or the emissions can more readily be contained, and their are other uses for at least some of the stuff that feeds the wildfires.
carbon dioxide when burned,
0 # treerapper 2018-11-25 04:56
I will try to answer your CO2 question. All plants are a carbon sink - they take in carbon and use it in their different processes. The ultimate carbon sink in the forest is soil with trees running second and shrubs third. When plants burn, they release whatever they have stored back into the atmosphere which means they are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere.

Forests that are managed as "forever wild" have extensive strategies for recycling their own waste - their detritus. That's the soil's job. When we insert ourselves into the forest - building roads, houses, skid trails for extracting timber and the like - we damage the soil extensively, compacting it to a degree that it can no longer function as the recycling factory that it is. If you compact soil so that it no longer contains the essential air and water storage and exchange pores , it can't support its microbial community. Its the microbial community that recycles the detritus.

You can then see how development within a forest system opens a Pandora's box and starts the process of system decline. This is one of the reasons why the Roadless Rule is so critical to forest well-being and, of course, forest well-being globally is critical to our survival as a species. And yet...

Hope this helps.
-3 # BKnowswhitt 2018-11-22 21:13
Only thing not avoidable is grandious media coverage of all events bad (Ratings man Ratings + $$$) .. then left leaning blame trump and big oil .. It's a result of CO2 .. all very predictable .. yahn .. giant sequoya's and coastal redwoods drop their seeds via the forces of fire .. their venios system ie water .. is in the bark .. so they survive while other transplanted pine trees due to forestation .. allow the seasonal and cyclycal fires to burn hotter .. fire is normal over thousands of years .. or redwoods and S would not be there .. proves it's cyclical .. it's man inability to get along with man that is the bigger unreported problem ..
-3 # BKnowswhitt 2018-11-22 21:17
Also this author though he must demonize Trump of course .. however Trump is correct part of the problem is CA management of tinder .. controlled burns are a method .. and a more radical approach is necessary if people continue to build up against and in the forest walls .. either dont' live there or manage it better .. Trump is correct .. this is what? Year three same damn thing same damn result .. change the management of the problem ..