Time to Reduce Fire Risk is Now
By Brenda W. Davis, Chair, The Forest Foundation
November rains finally came and helped extinguish the latest of our state's devastating wildfires — which burned more than 1.7 million acres in total. But the rain cannot wash away the tragedy of the 2018 fire season for Northern California.
This year's blazes included the largest and deadliest in state history, where 88 people lost their lives and more than 425,000 acres burned. If the fires of 2017 were a wakeup call, the 2018 megafires were an air raid siren. There's no time to wait — we must take immediate steps to reduce fire risk, protect our rural communities, and ensure the sustainability of our forests, water, and wildlife.
Our history tells part of the story. California's native vegetation is adapted to a climate with long, dry summers where frequent, low-intensity wildfires are a natural part the ecological system. Prior to European settlement, fires burned frequently in some types of chaparral. And in the Sierra Nevada's coniferous forests, natural fires occurred every 15 to 30 years. Even in the North Coast's moist redwoods, fire was a common occurrence. If you look, you can find fire scars on nearly every old-growth redwood tree. Starting in the early 1900s, land managers were successful in controlling many of the fires, but the result was a tremendous build-up of dense brush and overly-stocked forests.
In the Sierra Nevada, there are now more than double the number of trees per acre than existed prior to European settlement. Changes in climactic patterns have exacerbated conditions, with extended dry periods resulting in vegetation and potential fuels (for fires) with an unusually low moisture content.
Some say that climate change has made megafires inevitable. Others claim that forest thinning and fuel reduction treatments may actually increase fire intensity. Neither argument should be an excuse for inaction.
So, what can be done to reduce the chance of another Paradise type disaster? First, we must identify the communities at risk and develop warning systems and evacuation plans. Second, landowners must coordinate efforts to implement fuel treatment programs around these communities and homeowners must harden their properties against fire by creating defensible space and implementing fire-safe building practices. Third, since most of the 2017-18 Northern California fires started along highways or utility corridors, we must do a better job of controlling the vegetation within these zones and consider widening the protection areas. Also, create and maintain fuel breaks along strategic ridges and other locations to create defensible areas for firefighters. Finally, thin forests to make them healthier and more resilient to epidemic levels of insects and disease. We must also manage our chaparral areas using mechanical treatments and prescribed fire.
These efforts will require infrastructure and human capital. Some of the trees removed during thinning will be large enough to manufacture into lumber and help pay for the costs of hazard reduction. However, most will be small-diameter trees suitable only for producing biomass. This means increasing the infrastructure (crews and machinery) to perform fuel treatments, as well as creating new small log manufacturing centers and biomass facilities to generate regional green power. We will also need more trained workers and resource professionals to plan and implement the fuel reduction projects, while protecting sensitive resources.
Inaction is not an option. California must accept the challenge to manage both fire risk and hazards. We call upon our forest and land management leaders, decision-makers and the public to act now to implement the practices necessary to protect people and manage the priceless forests and chaparral landscapes necessary for our health and welfare.
Brenda W. Davis is Chair of The Forest Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to providing credible, balanced information about the sustainability of California’s forests and wildlands.
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