Sunday, November 11, 2018

Which Neighborhood Will Burn Next?

California has had terrible firestorm tragedies in the last two days. I mourn the loss of life. It is so very sad and hard to grasp the extent of the disaster. My thoughts are with the victims and their families.

The title of this blog is a difficult question to confront, but we have to face the issue.

I’m writing this from the Bay Area, where I’m exhibiting books at the San Mateo Harvest Festival. The Bay Area is choked in smoke from a fire that yesterday burned the entire town of Paradise, which is near Chico. It makes me ask questions about our response to the situation.
What should we do? One of the most sensible approaches is to reduce fuels in the forest. We’ve had 120 years of active fire suppression (putting out all fires). The result is a massive fuel buildup. Forests naturally burn every decade or so. Some forests burn more often. It has been estimated that Tahoe's forests used to burn every 7 years on average.

Fire is a natural part of the forest. If we could go back to that natural state -regular small fires in most of the forest - we wouldn't have anywhere near the problem we have now.

Putting out all those fires over all those years means we now have ten or fifteen times as much dead branches and trees as normal. Try to walk through a forest like that. You can’t. They are continuous thickets, impenetrable. Any source of flame makes them an explosive.
If there is a high wind and low humidity and no recent winter storms, all it takes is a lightning strike, or a sparking powerline, or a campfire that isn’t dead out, or a sparking trailer safety chain dragging on the highway. The result is a “Blowup,” which is an uncontrolled fire that can’t be stopped by any current measures.
(I’m not an “experts’ expert, but I know something about forest fire, having written a book about it. Tahoe Blowup.)
Anyone who is observant can see that the climate and the forest is not the same as it was even as recently as 20 years ago. The forests are drier, and they are burning up faster and taking with them anything (like houses) in the fire’s way.
I’ve read and heard many unreasonable responses to the fire danger.
Some say we shouldn’t live here. Maybe so. But where would we live? Nebraska? Do you really want most of the residents of the Western States to move to your neighborhoods back east?
Some say we can live in California but we shouldn’t live in the forest. Maybe so. But cities burn, too. It seems to me that more people have died in California’s “city wildfires” like the one in Santa Rosa last year than in “forest wildfires.” This isn’t a new situation, and it isn’t just in California or the other Western States. The Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin in 1871 is estimated to be the deadliest fire in American history, having killed over 1500 people. Possibly the second deadliest wildfire was the 1894 fire in Hinckley, Minnesota when 418 people died. The two worst American fires in history were 2000 miles from California.
Fighting fires takes money. Some people say that we already pay enough taxes, and if we want more money to deal with fire, it should come from other programs. Okay, which programs? And if you say that California has many superfluous programs that could be cut, then what do you say about other lower-tax states that don’t have such programs yet still have fires?
Some people say we shouldn’t do major controlled burns because the smoke they produce is bad, and they destroy wildlife habitat. Some people say that even driving on the forest floor compresses the soil and damages roots and wildlife. No doubt that is all true. But these major fires are uncontrolled and produce vast quantities of smoke, kill vast quantities of wildlife, and they don’t just compress the soil, they annihilate it, turning it into fine silty ash that runs into the rivers and pure lakes like Lake Tahoe, killing fish.

We need a huge plan, a Wildfire "Marshall Plan," to go into forests everywhere and remove a sizable portion of the trees and shrubs. In the 19th century, California’s forests were open enough to gallop a horse through them. They were kept that way by regular, natural fires, mostly caused by lightning. Those fires came in all varieties, but most were low intensity, what are called ground fires, clearing out brush and grass and some trees. Forests evolved with such fires. Most of those fires did not go into the tree canopies, what we now call Crown Fires. Because we now have so many communities near trees, we can’t let wildfires take their course. So we have to shape them by physically taking out the fuel. Some would be cut up for lumber. Some would be chipped for ground cover. And some would be burned in controlled burns.
Yes, we would still have damaging wildfires. But they would be fewer and less intense.
Please spread the word. If we don’t dramatically reduce the fuels in the forests around your house, your house may be the next to burn.

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