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By James Rainey
The Great Fire of 1910 — believed to be the biggest fire in recorded American history — burned 3 million acres across Washington, Idaho and Montana and killed 86 people. It also helped remake U.S. Forest Service policy. The agency ordered that all forest fires be extinguished as soon as possible, minimizing flames that for centuries had renewed the forests.
The government stranglehold on what had been naturally regenerating ecosystems marked the beginning of forest mismanagement practices that continued for decades, leaving 21st-century California in the midst of what one state commission has called “an unprecedented environmental catastrophe.”
The topic has been pushed to the forefront by an escalating string of deadly wildfires — including last year’s Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the largest in state history; the 2017 blazes that blackened much of the wine country in Napa and Sonoma counties, killing 44; and last month’s Camp Fire, which has killed at least 88 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, both records for wildfires in the Golden State.
The question of who is to blame has been a touchy one, particularly since President Donald Trump heaped blame for the fires on “mismanagement” by California officials and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called out “radical environmental groups” that he said “would rather burn down the entire forest than cut a single tree or thin the forest.”
The irony is that 57 percent of California’s 33 million acres of forest are controlled by the federal government. And even the timber industry, which Trump’s team appears to be trying to support, has slammed the U.S. for investing far too little in the priceless wild space.
Almost everyone who works in and around the state’s forests agrees that more needs to be done to limit runaway “superfires” that kill humans and leave entire ecosystems in ruins. But disagreements abound, including among environmentalists, about what’s most important: Focus intently on “prescribed burns” as the truest path to regaining an ecologically pure past? Bring back a time before the protection of spotted owl habitat or a salmon run could stunt a logging operation? Slam the door on new development on the suburban/wildland boundary, where fires do the most damage?
Public officials from the state capitol in Sacramento to Washington, D.C., are pushing policies intended to reverse the old ways — reducing an over-abundance of trees and other fuel and placing tighter controls on human development in fire danger zones. The new rules will increase controlled burns, ramp up logging and brush clearance and further buffer new home development close to wildlands.
But experts say it will take decades to restore health and balance to forests in California and the West.
“This is a big job. It’s not going to create change overnight,” said Jay Ziegler, external affairs director for Nature Conservancy in California. “It’s going to have to be 10-year commitment, a 20-year commitment and beyond. If we don’t change the status quo on forest management, we will continue to lose forest land at an alarming pace.”
“If we don’t change the status quo on forest management, we will continue to lose forest land at an alarming pace.”
Creating solutions is complicated by the array of overseers of wildlands — a tangle of federal, state and local agencies and thousands of private owners. A permit to cut or burn any parcel might stall if public officials can’t answer concerns about air quality, water purity, wildlife preservation and cultural and historical preservation.
The result is that brush and trees choke much of California’s open space, the fuel left tinder dry by years of drought that has been worsened by global warming. Insect infestations, particularly by the ubiquitous bark beetle, have killed vast swaths of pine and fir forest. With an estimated 129 million dead trees, California has established a Tree Mortality Task Force.
Scott Stephens, a University of California, Berkeley professor of fire science, said the fire cataclysms of the last two years seem to have ended a long era of inattention.
“We will start to change the trajectory,” he said, “so we won’t have tragedies like we had in Paradise.”
What went wrong in California
The state’s determination historically to squelch fires quickly has left forests choked with trees. One researcher in the Sierra Nevada range found records from 1911 showing 19 trees per acre in one section of the giant Stanislaus National Forest, compared to 260 trees per acre a century later. (The study counted trees more than 6 inches in diameter.)
California’s timber industry also has been greatly diminished. Companies made 4.5 million board feet of lumber in 1975 but only one-third that amount in 2016, a change environmentalists viewed as restoring needed ecological balance and companies saw as unduly restrictive.
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The skinny, tightly spaced trees and heavy brush created conditions that fueled so-called “crown” fires — in which flames could climb quickly climb from undergrowth into the forest canopy and then hop from tree to tree — usually powered by high heat and fierce winds. Half the damage from the 2013 Rim Fire came in just two days as flames whipped through the upper reaches of the forest, blackening 410 square miles in and around Yosemite National Park.
The Camp Fire began Nov. 8 in National Forest Service land and, powered by 50 mph winds, dashed into Concow, Magalia and Paradise, where firefighters said it morphed into an urban firestorm — blitzing from home to home, with less dependence on fir and pine for tinder.
A debate continues over why the fire was so deadly, with one camp arguing for better forest thinning and another pointing to the need for armored homes and more “defensible space” around structures.
But even a key lobbyist for the timber industry in California — tasked with expanding logging in California — said it’s wrong to point to one cause, or fix, to the problem.
“We have had climate change, so temperatures are hotter and there’s less humidity and the fuel is drier,” said Rich Gordon, president of the California Forestry Association. “And there is more fuel to burn. It would have been positive [to expand tree thinning and timber harvests] but there are a lot of factors. I don’t think that would have completely eliminated this problem.”
What California has tried so far
Last year’s devastation in the wine country — with 44 dead, subdivisions obliterated and classic California oaks turned to blackened skeletons — spurred California to its greatest wildfire safety reforms in memory. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a series of bills in September that will streamline regulations for thinning forests in fire zones, allow limited removal of some larger trees and force cities and counties to plan better defenses for individual properties and communities.
The measures also promised $1 billion over five years to clean up thousands of acres of deadwood, chaparral and forest — California’s biggest-ever promise of money to reduce fire fuels.
But the money is only pledged; the California Legislature and incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom will have to assure it’s actually allocated each year.
And it’s unclear just how far the money — mostly for cities, counties, land conservancies and land trusts — will go. California has set a goal even before the fund was allocated of “treating” 500,000 acres of wildland per year. “Treatment” refers to any slashing, burning, sawing or thinning of growth to make forests less susceptible to burning out of control.
The number of acres treated in recent years averages only about 30,000 because of factors including attention to native species and lack of adequate staff and funding to oversee projects, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The new funding should help the state spread the work to many more acres, but no one has said how much ground can be covered or how long it will take to reduce a fuel buildup created over more than a century. And fuel reduction can’t be done just once. The work has to be completed again every few years.
Important questions remained unresolved: How much land can be treated with “prescribed burns” — the intentionally set blazes during low-risk days that are tightly regulated by fire officials? And, in judging whether to set such fires, how should government weigh short-term harm to California’s air quality against the prevention of catastrophic events, like the brown fog that settled over much of Northern California after the Camp Fire?
Battle lines in how to prevent fires
The battle lines on these questions are not clear. Even within the environmental community, a rift opened between supporters and opponents of Senate Bill 901, the sweeping measure that included many of the new wildfire rules.
The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity were among the opponents of the bill, arguing that it allowed too much cutting of big trees, when prescribed burns would create healthier growth cycles. The law allows cutting trees up to 30 inches in diameter, up from 26 inches previously, in limited high-fire-danger zones, and it includes a complex formula to limit how many trees can be taken per acre.
“Parts of SB 901 allow taking more of the bigger trees to be removed and without proper oversight,” said Kathryn Phillips, chief lobbyist for Sierra Club California. “They’re using the tragedy of these fires to get bigger and bigger trees out of the forests,” said Kathryn Phillips, chief lobbyist for Sierra Club California.
The forestry industry and some environmental groups, like the Nature Conservancy, said the new law contains plenty of controls to assure that the biggest trees, and those in sensitive habitats, are preserved.
The federal government controls more than half of the forest in California, and the U.S. thinned, cut, burned and mulched about 235,000 acres there in the year that ended Oct. 1, according to Barnie Gyant, the U.S. Forest Service’s deputy regional forester for California and the Pacific.
“A huge part of the problem is … a lack of management of federal land.”
Federal forestry officials have said they would like to do more, but much of the agency’s budget has been tied up reacting to fires, rather than trying to prevent them. From 1995 to 2015, the Forest Service went from spending 16 percent to 52 percent of its budget fighting fires, according to the Ecological Society of America, a non-profit that tries to bring science into environmental decision making.
In a 2015 report, the Forest Service conceded that the ever-greater cost of quelling mega-fires had depleted work to “improve the health and resilience of our forested landscapes and mitigate the potential for wildland fire in future years.” Added the timber industry’s Gordon: “A huge part of the problem is … a lack of management of federal land.”
On a recent tour of Paradise, California, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue touted the pending Farm Bill, saying it will provide money for more forest management and allow more logging of trees burned in wildfires. Perdue, who oversees the Forest Service, also championed a plan to cut more trees in the Plumas National Forest, where the Camp Fire began, and use the lumber to help rebuild Paradise. (Agreements are in place that allow the state to use its resources to perform some of the clearance work on federal land.)
An essential challenge is what to do with wood and brush that can’t be left to decompose on the forest floor. The timber industry prefers larger trees, but smaller trees and debris must be cleared out as well, and there is little market for that material. If it is burned as “biomass” rather than repurposed, that could trigger an environmental battle over the resulting air pollution.
Environmentalists are hoping for cleaner solutions, like one in which wood waste is compressed into “mass timber” than can be used for new construction.
What’s next for California
A new round of California fire legislation is expected in the next session, which begins Jan. 7. There could be a push for more controlled burns and for greater controls on home building on hillsides and in canyons, where structures are hardest to defend.
Experts said the debate could next swing to what to do about existing homes, which include the older, wooden structures most susceptible to flames. The need for retrofitting seems clear, but so does the prohibitively high cost, especially for older residents who occupy many of the homes.
Berkeley’s Stephens, a leading wildfire expert, said the specter of climate change, with new droughts and dry hillsides, means that wildfire in California will never be reduce to historic levels.
But the state took huge steps with the reforms approved in 2018, he said.
“It could be moving us away from this trend of fire being so destructive, year after year,” said the fire scientist. “So there’s hope. There’s real hope.”
James Rainey is a reporter for NBC News, based in Los Angeles.