Revisiting the perfect storm that brought us to this point

An interesting public dialogue has begun regarding forest management, the impact of logging (or lack of it) and climate change on the number and severity of wildfires in California. From Keith Crummer’s “The perfect storm: Oxygen, fuel and an ignition” Where I Stand in the Jan. 30 edition of this newspaper, to the thoughtful responses by Paul Cavanaugh and Gene Nielsen in subsequent Letters to the Editor, it seems that there is some debate about whether we may (or may not) have a serious problem.

I believe we do have a problem. I believe that more communities will face infernos such as those that burned large expanses of Santa Rosa and Redding, and most of Paradise, unless we recognize the gravity of our situation and find a meaningful way to reduce fuel loads.

As a board member for Plumas Corporation, a member of the former Feather River CRM, a contemporary of the Quincy Library Group members, and a participant in many Plumas County Fire Safe Council meetings, I believe that I have sufficient background on the conditions of our forests and their vulnerability to wildfire to comment on this issue.

As a seasonal firefighter for the Forest Service in my younger days, I became aware of how difficult and dangerous fighting a wildland fire can be.  While it’s true that only a small percentage of wildfires are ignited during high-wind events, those fires are responsible for most of the acreage burned and the biggest toll in lives lost. Once a wind-pushed wildfire gets started, about all that emergency service agencies can do is evacuate people until conditions change in favor of the firefighters. Today’s wildfires — under those fuel and weather conditions — are fought on the fire’s terms, not ours.

Finally, as a first responder with the local Search & Rescue team, the last thing I ever want to do again is rake through the ashes of once-bustling neighborhoods looking for human remains.

The facts concerning the “Fire Triangles” that Mr. Crummer laid out for fire ignition and behavior were spot on, especially his analysis of the growing fuel load in our forests. I agree that the only component of a fire we can hope to control is the fuel load, although that “control” will vary with the lay of the land and the fuel type. I also agree with his take on how past policy makers’ failures to implement rational, intelligent and appropriate forest management policies have put us in this position. The only bright note is that Sacramento has begun to acknowledge the problems in our forests, beginning with the “Little Hoover” report sent to then Governor Brown in 2018, titled “Fire on the Mountain: Rethinking Forest Management in the Sierra Nevada,” and Assembly Bill 901 and Senate Bill 2551.

These laws are aimed at implementing mutual aid requests, providing forest management through prescribed burning and making it easier to reduce fuel loads on public lands and privately-owned property. Welcome news also is appearing on the federal front: the Forest Service is working cooperatively with certain state agencies through its “Good Neighbor Authority” to make it easier to remove vegetation that could feed a fire. You may have the same two questions I do: Will these measures be enough? Can they be implemented in time to turn the corner on these devastating wildfires?

Here are a few more points. First, the term “global warming” seems to be misunderstood, even scoffed at, but I think it should be part of this conversation. Scientists have reported that the overall temperature of the planet is increasing, leading to the use of that particular designation. A better term, and one that should have more significance, is “climate change,” since the weather changes that we are seeing don’t seem to be uniform or predictable across the planet. Whether you believe that climate change (or global warming) is an actual threat, or if it’s even real, is up to you. The evidence I’ve seen leads me to believe that there is certainly something affecting the weather. If you follow the news, you’ll see that we seem to be having more extreme weather events across the country (and the world) as well as here in California. Locally, this has produced dryer, hotter and longer fire seasons. Droughts have become more common, weakening mature conifers and making them susceptible to mortality through beetle infestation. In turn, these dead trees are potential fuel for wildfires. This “bug kill,” along with the continuing drought (Yes, we are still in a drought!) has contributed to a dramatic increase in the size of fires in northern forests. Drought conditions have done the same on the brush-covered hills of the central and southern coastal areas. Over 1.6 million acres burned in California in 2018 — about the same size as Plumas County. California has had five fire seasons in recent history where over one million acres have burned — all within the past 20 years, including 2017 and 2018.

Many of the worst fires in northern California are those driven by strong northerly and easterly winds, and those winds — once rare — are becoming more frequent. Nobody knows for sure if this a result of climate change, but we do know that when the wind drives oxygen into a fire, it causes the fire to burn hotter and at a higher speed. Today’s bigger, faster and hotter wildfires incinerate the biological components of much of the ground they burn over, sterilizing the soil several inches deep. That makes revegetation more difficult, whether through man’s efforts or natural re-seeding.

A few words about the trees that make up our forests: Trees, absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. As beautiful as they are to behold, too many trees are a problem, and there are now roughly ten times as many in the Sierra Nevada as there were 200 years ago. Not bigger trees; more trees. This increase is due in large part to fire-suppression policies put into place to protect property, not to manage forests. Understandable in the 1800s, but now we know the repercussions of those policies. We have “protected” our forests by aggressively denying fire’s role in removing the undergrowth that makes up the lower portion of the “fire ladder.” In doing so, we have created a continuous fuel source for wildfire from the ground up to the crowns of the tallest trees. When consumed by a wildfire, those trees and the undergrowth release the carbon dioxide they have sequestered over the years. Trees killed by fire and beetle infestation that remain in the forest soon begin to decompose, creating methane. Both carbon dioxide and methane add to the “Greenhouse Effect” that accelerates climate change. One other fact regarding trees: The average mid-sized (24-30”) conifer uses several hundred gallons of water on a hot, dry day — pulling water out of the ground by osmosis through its roots and allowing it to enter the atmosphere through transpiration, while keeping only about 10 percent of the water it has consumed for its own use. The number of trees in our forests has increased tenfold. Even though the total biomass may not have increased quite that much due to the harvesting of many larger trees, it would be easy to postulate that there has been a significant and negative effect on the state’s groundwater and stream flows due to this overabundance of vegetation.

It might also be easy to blame CalFire and the Forest Service for not doing enough to protect our communities from wildfires, but I think that would be a mistake. They are doing what they can through prescribed burning along with hand and mechanical thinning. Budgetary constraints at the state level and a continuing reduction in force (and budget) at the federal level keep treated areas so small that they don’t keep pace with annual forest growth. Fire Safe Councils throughout the state are coordinating fuel reduction projects as quickly as funding becomes available. Locally, the Plumas County Fire Safe Council is helping communities achieve “Firewise Community“ status as quickly as they can.

The Forest Service has recently strengthened its policy and given new direction to its employees regarding the removal of excess fuels in the forest. But there’s still not enough funding to make a statistical difference in the percentage of forest lands treated, and there aren’t enough trained forest workers to implement this work if it were to be fully funded. It’s kind of a “chicken and egg” quandary.

The bottom line is that it’s a matter of pace and scale. Until we realize very soon that we need to do much more to reduce the fuel load in our forests, and find a way to act upon that realization, we will not have any real protection for our mountain communities. Raising public awareness may help, and for taking the time to read this opinion, I thank you.

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