The western United States is enduring another devastating fire year, with more than 4.1 million acres already burned in California alone, at least 31 people dead and hundreds of others forced to flee their homes.
Wilderness fires are increasingly following a now familiar pattern: larger, warmer and more destructive. A recent headline in the Los Angeles Times declaring 2020 to be “The worst fire season. Again, ”illustrated some of the frustrations residents feel about the state’s fire strategy.
For decades, federal, state, and local agencies have prioritized firefighting over prevention, pouring billions of dollars into hiring and training firefighters, purchasing and maintaining firefighting equipment, and educating the public about fire safety.
But as climate change continues to provide dry conditions in the American West, many experts say it is long overdue to shift the focus back to managing healthy forests that can better withstand fire and add to a more sustainable future.
“Fires have always been a part of our ecosystem,” said Mike Rogers, a former Angeles National Forest supervisor and board member of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees. “Forest management is a lot like gardening. You need to keep the forest open and thin. ”
Federal forest management dates back to the 1
In California, forestry also falls under the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
Since 2011, Cal Fire has spent more than $ 600 million on fire prevention efforts and removed or felled nearly 2 million dead trees. In 2018, California set itself the goal of treating – which could include cutting, burning, sawing or thinning trees – 500,000 acres of wilderness a year, yet Cal Fire is far from reaching that goal.
“It’s an ongoing process,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Christine McMorrow. “There will always be more work.”
Cal Fire receives ongoing injections of money to do what it can to reduce the risk of forest fires, including better land management and the training of a new generation of foresters. In 2018, former government Jerry Brown signed a bill allocating $ 1 billion over five years to Cal Fire to be used for fire prevention measures. But experts warn that more money is needed.
“Is that enough? Well, that’s enough for what we’re doing right now, but is it enough to get all the work to be done in a year or five years or 10 years? It will take a lot,” McMorrow said. .
Long before the country’s founding, Spanish explorers documented wilderness fires in California. In 1542, conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed along the coast and noticed smoke billowing up from what is now known as the Los Angeles Basin. He called it “la baya de los fumos” or “the bay of smoke.”
Studies by archaeologists and historians support a theory that Cabrillo may have witnessed an early form of land management, including the burning of shrubs and chaparral to clear dry brushes and promote better conditions for game hunting.
Prescribed and controlled burns were integrated into the American landscape for generations. In 1910, the focus began to shift away from forest management and fire fighting, after “The Big Burn” ravaged 3 million acres of Washington, Idaho and Montana, killing at least 85 people and reshaping U.S. fire policy in the years to come.
The U.S. Forest Service ordered that all wildlife fires be extinguished as soon as possible and eventually opted for the so-called 10:00 policy, which emphasized suppressing fires the morning after they started.
The state’s policy of stopping fires as soon as they ignite resulted in a backlog of trees in the forests, which were now suffocated with brush and other dry fuel. According to the U.S. Forest Service, a researcher studying the Stanislaus National Forest in northern California found records from 1911 that showed only 19 trees per acre. Hectares in part of the forest. More than a century later, the researcher and his team counted 260 trees per. Acre.
With denser wood siding, the danger of major fires follows, Rogers said.
“We have several large trees per. Hectares than we have ever had because they continued to grow, and under these large trees are young shrubs burning fire in the crown of the trees, ”he said. “When a fire starts in there, it’s unstoppable.”
Droughts, climate change and bark beetle attacks have all contributed to the backlog of trees, leaving some experts pushing for creative solutions to manage California’s overcrowded forests.
One possible solution could be to convert dead and diseased trees into biomass energy before starting massive forest fires.
Jonathan Kusel founded the nonprofit research organization Sierra Institute for Community and Environment in 1993 in an effort to better understand how state and federal agencies could use residual organic material for use. The institute is now working with federal and state partners on ways to supply wood chips made from low-value vegetation to biomass facilities that can then burn the organic matter to produce heat and electricity.
Kusel estimates that the process, when performed correctly in closed barrels, is exponentially cleaner than relying on natural gas for energy. It also facilitates what Kusel calls “appropriate deforestation” or clearing of small growth, not only to reduce the risk of forest fires, but also to contribute to cleaner waterways and lower carbon emissions by promoting healthier forests.
“We are not going to succeed if all we do is try to stop the fire,” he said. “But we can make it less harmful … and we can try to introduce smaller fires that can sustain habitats in a healthy state.”
But finding buyers for biomass is still a big issue for the Sierra Institute. Biomass is considered a dirty word among environmentalists who warn that burning plant material and releasing it into the air can increase carbon emissions.
Removing small growth from forests is also more expensive and not as economically attractive as focusing on removing large growths that can be turned into wood, Kusel acknowledged. As forest fires continue to threaten to become larger and more dangerous, Kusel hopes that a new locally based biomass market can offset the cost of thinning out state forests by creating smaller, better-maintained facilities that do not release hazardous pollutants into the air.
“Socially, we need to think differently about our forests, but we also need to invest and manage them differently,” he said. “We need to do better.”