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Climate & Energy
Putting Out Fires
Nov 19, 2018
 Last weekend, while giving honor to the heroes of WWI, our President took a moment to tell the residents of California who were fleeing burning landscapes and homes, that the federal government may decide not to help. He blamed poor forest management. This was actually an improvement on the last White House tweet on wildfires, in which he faulted a mythical problem with finding water, because it was “being diverted to the Pacific Ocean” by environmentalists. His most recent tweet was closer to the mark, but still wrong. In the last two days, following outrage from devastated Californians and people around the country, pronouncements from the White House have become more helpful and informed. Unfortunately the sword was already drawn.

The fires are in two regions. In Southern California the fires are happening in grasslands and chaparral, not in forests. For years scientists have been warning that changing conditions--yes to some extent driven by climate change--will increase the intensity and severity of wildfires in these areas, with tragic consequences. More homes and people living in these ecosystems pose management challenges, especially when the management of chaparral is scientifically challenging. So while there probably should not be five million homes beautifully tucked into this landscape, they are there, and our President should console and assure them the American people will do whatever we can to restore their lives.

There are vegetation management options for reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires in chaparral ecosystems (prescribed burning or vegetation removal). They are expensive and sometimes dangerous, and come with the potential to destroy the richness (fully one third of California’s plant species) and beauty of these ecosystems. A foolproof approach for preventing the loss of life and property when fires rage is to not rebuild in these ecosystems, in the exact same sense that we should avoid rebuilding along coastlines and floodplains where the U.S. repeatedly deploys billions in tax dollars through FEMA. It is a tough sell and a hard decision for people who have long-held properties and memories in these risky places. The irony of course is that this “better management” solution has been advocated by the environmental community and blocked by developers. This administration, and a President who fought and flaunted environmental regulations for developments on the eastern seaboard, need to consider restricting development and appreciate the science of managing natural resources.

In Northern California the fires are also happening in grasslands and chaparral, as well as forests. The suspected point of ignition for the devastating Camp Fire is a hillside of scrubby and open forests interspersed with grasslands, as is the terrain between there and the ravaged town of Paradise. The fire has ripped across all lands and has been devastating, taking lives and property.

Fires like this were predicted. Repeated droughts make vegetation of all kinds dry as kindling. The California Department of Forestry and the United States Forest Service and others responsible for forests have been enumerating the dead and dying trees in the Sierras (125 million), in some instances trying to spur the development of new businesses that could use this resource. Other times they have resorted to harvesting, trucking, and preemptive burning (in “curtain burners”). This is an expensive waste of wood that everyone hopes could be put to a better use. None of these agencies has the budget or political support necessary to deal with the scale of the problem. In fact, in recent years fire has burned through more than half of the federal Forest Service’s budget--such that there were scant dollars and fewer people to manage the problem through planning and treatments. Many administrations have not addressed this problem.
The tragedy we are witnessing in the California Sierras is only partially a consequence of the inability to identify and act on management priorities that are actually shared by many environmental groups, scientists, agencies, and companies. Pitting different interests against each other now will be a setback, as will dismissing the science that in recent years has become a means to forge consensus and accelerate action.

The fires are also undeniably intensified by climate change. According to almost all scientists it is not debatable, and perhaps it need not be debated. Rather let’s take the lesson of what we are witnessing with longer, drier, warmer summers in the region. Across the western U.S., the fire season has increased by two and half months since the 1980s, while in California the season is now year round. Models reflect these observations and we would be fools not to use their predictions to design restoration actions that result in more resilient forest ecosystems. Make no mistake, even fire scientists who study the same incidents in the same places have disagreements over everything that must be done--e.g. whether thinning trees always reduces fuel loads, or in some areas may actually leave drier tinder that invites fire. Creating the consensus needed for “no-regrets action” is certainly not helped by sparking even greater discord.

 Contrary to the partisan criticism the state of California is doing its part, investing billions of dollars for forest health and resilience treatments over the next decade. Just as the latest round of fires rage, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is preparing to invest $155 million in 2019 treatments of this kind--using proceeds from the state’s cap and trade program that limits greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to drought and forest decline.

Another initiative in the Lake Tahoe basin leverages $4 million in private investments from foundations, an insurance company, and an investment firm. The investors expect a 4 percent return from annual payments from a public water utility, a local water agency, and the state, whose reduced wildfire risk will save them untold expenses in the future.

California and other states dealing with catastrophic wildfire need more infusions of resources and creative financing like this, not less. There will be families and towns in California whose lives can never be restored. This is tragic. What can be recovered immediately is a sense of decency and restraint--not letting these terrible events become opportunities to restate tired and only partially-informed ideas of what is needed in these places. Let’s put away swords. Yes, in some places we will have to sharpen axes--but this is not the only solution, and certainly not one that works without scientifically-informed, and consensus-based work on land use and forestry. We need to work together to conserve landscapes that include troubled forest ecosystems and suffering people.
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