The history of Plumas County has always included episodes of wildland fire. Some of it has been the result of lightning strikes, while other fires were the result of human activity, planned or otherwise.
Long before the settlers arrived, the native Maidu used fire as a tool for understory clearing. Accidental fires became more frequent as greater numbers of humans interacted with the forest. Along the way, most of us lost our understanding of the beneficial natural role of fire in our environment. Instead, we embarked on a century-long campaign to eradicate all wildland fire, as quickly as possible, while minimizing any compensating activity to reduce the inevitable buildup of understory fuels in the forest. Our intentions were good, but the result wasn’t.
Today we have large forest areas with unprecedented tree densities and heavy surface fuels, a combination that leads to massive fires once an ignition occurs. In our zeal to atone for perceived past misdeeds, we have adopted very restrictive public policies that delay or prevent action that might mitigate the growing fire danger. And we have a divisive, often confrontational atmosphere of distrust among different advocacy groups. All in all, a poor situation for constructive action.
Presumably we’ve learned a little from our history, and can recognize the increasing fuel buildup in our forests. Hopefully we also recognize that natural ignitions from lightning strikes will continue to occur, and that as much as we try to reduce accidental ignitions, human beings will continue to be the source of additional fires. We’re back to the classic equation: fuel plus oxygen plus heat (ignition) equals fire. In short, there will be fire.
Realistically, it’s not a matter of preventing all wildland fire … we can’t. It’s a matter of reducing the undesirable effects of fire and tolerating the rest. This is something we can do, if we have the will to do it.
Improving the situation in rural areas such as ours involves a two-pronged effort. The first prong deals with the forest, and this is where most of the controversy exists. I would assert that we cannot safely reintroduce cleansing fire to the forest until we do considerable mechanical preparation to reduce the existing fuel load, especially the understory and overstocked tree stands.
I would also assert that we need to establish a network of shaded fuel breaks, strategically located in all areas of the forest, to reduce the chances of a small fire progressing into a large inferno. In both cases, such work may require revisions to current forest policies. However, we should all recognize that policies are self-imposed rules that can and should be revised as we better understand the circumstances.
The second prong of the effort hits closer to home. As residents in a forested region, we all need to be aware of the fire danger around us. The harsh reality is that in the event of a fast-moving wildland fire, there simply won’t be enough fire engines and fire fighters to protect every home. Our only realistic strategy is to make our homes and our neighborhoods as fire-tolerant as possible. The ideal situation would be one in which it would not be necessary for a fire crew to be on site to protect a structure. That ideal may be difficult to achieve, but we can get awfully close.
This is where property owners can make a difference, both individually and collectively. Instead of denial or assuming that firefighters will take care of things for us, we all need to take an objective look at our property and our neighborhood, recognize the hazards that exist, and take action to mitigate those hazards. There are plenty of resources available to us, through the Plumas County Fire Safe Council, local Firewise Community organizations, local fire districts and CalFire.
Talking about it is fine, but nothing really improves until we act. And the time to act is now … fire season is coming.