Facing Deadlier Fires, California Tries Something New: More Logging (#GotBitcoin?)
Environmentalists and the timber industry, after long butting heads, increasingly agree that cutting trees to thin forests is vital to reducing fire danger.
Obscured amid the chaos of California’s latest wildfire outbreak is a striking sign of change that may help curtail future devastating infernos. After decades of butting heads, some environmentalists and logging supporters have largely come to agreement that forests need to be logged to be saved.
The current fires are hitting populated areas along the edges of forests and brush lands, including the 142,000-acre Camp Fire in Northern California’s Butte County. That now ranks as the most deadly and destructive in state history, killing at least 71 people, leaving hundreds missing and destroying more than 9,800 homes. The Camp Fire and the 98,400-acre Woolsey Fire in Southern California were fueled by fierce winds in unusually dry weather, which turned much of the state into a tinderbox.
Another dangerous factor, land-management experts say, is that forests have become overgrown with trees and underbrush due to a mix of human influences, including a past federal policy of putting out fires, rather than letting them burn. Washington has also sharply reduced logging under pressure from environmentalists.
Now, the unlikely coalition is pushing new programs to thin out forests and clear underbrush. In 2017, California joined with the U.S. Forest Service and other groups in creating the Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative, which aims to thin millions of trees from about 2.4 million acres of forest—believed to be the largest such state-federal project in the country.
The current fires have trained a spotlight on the strategy: Parts of the forest burned in the Camp Fire in and around Paradise, for example, were overgrown with small, young trees, according to a 2017 forest health plan by the Butte County Fire Safe Council, which had planned to thin a thousand acres of land there over the next decade.
“We need to try new things because what we’ve done in the past hasn’t worked,” said David Edelson, Sierra Nevada project director of the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit that is part of the new thinning partnership.
Says Rich Gordon, president and chief executive officer of the California Forestry Association, an industry group based in Sacramento: “We absolutely have to thin our forests. Through a long period of fire suppression and lack of timber production, we have allowed our forests to become overgrown.”
The Tahoe-Central Sierra initiative’s work to log and carry out prescribed burns on national forests is expected to pick up next year. Early stages of the project had wound down for the season before the current fires.
The chief aim is to better safeguard the more than 12 million acres of forest in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, roughly a third of the state’s total, and the source of nearly two-thirds of the water Californians depend on.
Communities housing nearly a million people would also get better protection, while lessons learned could lead to more aggressive thinning projects in more populated parts of the state, supporters of the initiative say.
“Having the fuel loads in forests and wild lands reduced is definitely helpful in modifying fire behavior, but it needs to occur at a much greater scale than we are currently doing,” said Jim Branham, executive officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that helped broker the partnership.
Wildfires in forests with widely spaced trees are more likely to stay on the ground and burn themselves out, while the brush and small trees in more overgrown forests act as a “ladder” to carry fire higher and spread, according to a 2015 forest-health plan devised in part by the state of Washington.
Thinning isn’t seen as a cure-all. More than anything, climate change is making California more fire prone, according to many scientists and state officials. Six of the state’s 10 most destructive fires have taken place since 2015.
“Even if we are successful on that [thinning] front, there will undoubtedly be events that simply overwhelm us,” Mr. Branham said. “It is a scary future.”
Some environmentalists oppose even the small-scale logging of the California project. The group is removing mainly small-diameter trees as opposed to the big ones favored in the past by commercial timber operations on federal land. Tim Hermach, executive director of the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Ore., blames logging for the buildup of flammable brush and younger trees.
“Every time they take a tree out of a forest, they’re making it hotter, drier and more flammable,” Mr. Hermach said.
Others say the state isn’t doing enough to better protect communities themselves from fire, such as by not allowing development in fire-prone areas and requiring prevention measures such as rooftop vents to capture flying embers.
The thinning coalition represents a new front. The Nature Conservancy’s Mr. Edelson used to sue to block logging plans in national forests as an attorney for another green group. Now he said he sees the need for limited logging because of the dramatic rise in wildfires.
That puts him in agreement not only with timber industry officials, but also U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has earned the ire of conservationists including on efforts to reduce the size of national monuments and open more areas to drilling.
On Wednesday, Mr. Zinke said priority needs to be given to reducing the density of overgrown woodlands to reduce more catastrophic blazes. “The bottom line is there’s just too much dead and dying material,” he said after touring the Camp Fire destruction. President Trump, who plans to tour the area Saturday, has blamed mismanagement for the fires.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, while citing climate change and other factors for the current problems, has spoken glowingly of the Tahoe initiative. The governor on Sept. 21 signed bills authorizing a $1 billion, five-year plan to thin forests, including by easing rules on logging. A month earlier, the Trump administration announced a plan to increase the amount of thinning and controlled burns on federal lands. Forestry experts say the number of acres thinned annually needs to be more than quadrupled from the approximate one million that are done now.
Eli Ilano, supervisor for the Tahoe National Forest, said the federal government has wanted to do thinning work in the past, but that the growing cost of fighting wildfires have siphoned off much of the agency’s funds. The Forest Service’s firefighting costs soared to a record $2.4 billion in 2017 from an average of $1.1 billion a year over the prior decade. A measure contained in a spending bill signed by Mr. Trump in March will provide a dedicated fund for thinning and other forest restoration work beginning in 2020.
U.S. wildfires, mostly in the West, have scorched more than 8.5 million acres so far this year as of Friday, and an average of 6.3 million acres during each of the past five years, far above a 10-year average of 3.7 million a year in the 1990s, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The threat is considered by many experts to be gravest in California, because it recently went through a five-year drought and has so many people living in wild areas.
One of California’s most serious fire threats is in the national forests that blanket the Sierra Nevada, the location of the state-federal thinning project, where the U.S. Forest Service estimates 129 million trees have died due to drought and bark beetle infestations. The initiative’s project covers seven counties of state, private and federal lands around Lake Tahoe—one of the mountain West’s biggest tourism draws.
On an afternoon in September, before the latest round of fires, the sound of logging equipment pierced the mountain air near the mile-high French Meadows Reservoir as crews cut trees in a forest owned by the American River Conservancy, another environmental group whose work is being coordinated under the partnership. Operator Brian Chamberlain wiped his brow as he took a break from a machine called a “masticator,” which chopped and ground small fir and cypress trees into tiny pieces.
“They work me like a rented mule,” the 58-year-old joked as fellow lumberjacks nearby sawed and cut other larger trees and stacked the trunks in neat piles.
In thinning projects, old, diseased or too small trees are individually marked for removal. Loggers move in—often operating in pairs—with chain saws or heavy machinery to take down the trees, which are then stripped of limbs by another machine and stacked up. Broad stands of dead trees killed by bark beetle are often clear-cut.
The finished logs are then usually hauled by truck to a commercial timber mill or shipped to a biomass plant to be converted into energy, said Mr. Edelson of the Nature Conservancy. Since there is otherwise little profit for cutters, the work usually needs to be subsidized by governments.
The past acrimony over forest management is partly rooted in the timber wars of the late 1980s and 1990s, when emotions ran so high activists chained themselves to logging equipment to protect endangered species including the northern spotted owl. Amid ensuing court battles, the federal government in effect closed much of its western forests to logging.
Overgrown forests have played a role in dangerous fires in recent years, including 2013’s Rim Fire, the largest recorded fire in the Sierra Nevada, which tore through 257,000 acres.
Of particular concern is the growing severity of the infernos, which get so hot they can actually create their own weather systems, causing winds to shift and spread flames in many directions. More than a third of the terrain in some of the recent big fires in the Sierra Nevada has burned so intensely that biologists say the soil may be too damaged to regrow a forest for many years.
That threatens the water supply. After the King Fire blackened nearly 100,000 acres of forest east of Sacramento in 2014, the Placer County Water Agency had to spend $5 million dredging hundreds of thousands of tons of topsoil that washed into its Hell Hole Reservoir as a result, said Marie Davis, a geologist with the agency. “We want a reliable watershed,” Ms. Davis said. “We can’t keep filling it with sediment.”
Lack of available labor and infrastructure are hurdles to expanding the thinning work. Many of the mills in the area have closed due to the slowdown in logging, a manager said. Many of the workers, meanwhile, including Mr. Chamberlain, the masticator operator, were at or near retirement age.
Despite the challenges, proponents of the thinning said all the work was worth it. “We can spend millions cleaning up the forest,” said Autumn Gronborg, supervisor of a crew near French Meadows, “or billions fighting the fires.”
Trump Administration Seeks Authority for More Logging to Fight Fire Danger
Request for congressional action comes as flood warnings hit California communities damaged by wildfires.
The White House on Tuesday called on Congress to provide expanded authority to thin out the West’s tinder dry forests, in an attempt to help prevent the kind of cataclysmic wildfires that have ravaged California over the past two weeks.
President Trump in a statement called on Congress to give his administration expanded powers in the pending farm bill to ramp up the removal of trees in overgrown forests. A House version of the bill contains some of those powers, while the Senate’s doesn’t.
Mr. Trump last weekend toured the town of Paradise, Calif., virtually destroyed by the 151,373 acre Camp Fire, which has killed at least 81 people and destroyed 12,600 homes.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Tuesday they hope Congress will give their agencies powers including streamlined regulatory approvals to increase the removal of trees in overgrown forests, which many forestry experts blame for the growing number of wildfires in California and other Western states.
Mr. Zinke said federal efforts to thin forests through logging and prescribed burns have been hampered by “radical environmentalists” who repeatedly file lawsuits to block the activity. The Interior Secretary said other forces were at work, too, including warmer temperatures.
Some environmentalists accused the administration of using the Camp Fire tragedy to further an agenda of helping big timber companies. “This is not thinning they’re talking about. This is intensive commercial logging,” said Chad Hanson, research ecologist with the John Muir Project, an environmental group based in Big Bear City, Calif.
Mr. Hanson said thinning actually increases the wildfire risk, by taking out stands of trees that can serve as a buffer to the high winds that fan the spread of flames.
Some other environmentalists support thinning, a policy on which the Trump administration and the Democratic-led California government have cooperated.
With the Camp Fire now 70% contained, a new threat to Butte County, which includes Paradise, emerged Tuesday when the National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for the burn area. The first major storms of the season are forecast to roll in between Wednesday and Friday.
California Rethinks Firefighting Tactics, Evacuation Routes for Future Wildfires
Communities across state work to improve preparedness for ‘new normal’ following devastating Camp Fire
The Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, has left communities around the state reevaluating everything from their evacuation routes to communications systems.
James Gore, a supervisor in Sonoma County, which was ravaged by multiple fires in October 2017, said 13 communities in high-risk areas have put together maps, and residents are now practicing new escape routes more regularly.
“Everybody is playing catch-up. Everybody is trying to address the new normal,” said Mr. Gore, who is leading the statewide county association’s effort to help others better prepare.
Seven of California’s 20 most destructive wildfires and five of its deadliest have occurred in just the last 13 months. The Tubbs Fire that hit Sonoma and Napa Counties last year killed 22 people; it was considered the state’s most destructive before the Camp Fire ignited. The latter has killed at least 88 people and burned roughly 18,800 structures.
Cal-Fire, the state fire-protection agency, has classified more than 180 locales in 31 counties—from Siskiyou on the state’s northern border to San Diego to the south—as being in the most hazardous fire zones. Paradise is on the list, as are communities like Berkeley, Oakland, Los Angeles, Malibu, Monterey, Santa Rosa and Thousand Oaks.
“There is a whole new focus,” said Graham Knaus, the executive director of the California State Association of Counties. “When you have wildfires moving 80 football fields per minute…it causes a full revaluation on how best to move forward.”
Rebecca August, a public lands advocate with Los Padres ForestWatch, a nonprofit, attended a hearing on California’s emergency-warning system earlier this week. She said attendees discussed building fire-safe shelters in area that might be hard to evacuate.
“I hadn’t heard people talking about that before,” she said.
Citizen groups are also taking action. Priscilla Abercrombie, who lives on Fitch Mountain outside of Healdsburg, in Sonoma, is part of a group that has put together a phone tree residents can use to help evacuate if a fire or other natural disaster strikes. Healdsburg firefighters debriefed her group this week about the recent fires.
“People are really motivated,” she said. “The take-home message is to know who your neighbor is and ways to get off the mountain, and have a plan, and have your stuff ready.”
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, a former Gold Rush town of 26,000, was how quickly it moved. The fire was first noticed before 7:00 a.m on Nov. 8, and an hour later the entire town was under an evacuation order. Two hours after sundown, the community was all but wiped out.
“We had planned for a wildfire. What we got was a hydrogen bomb,” said Jim Broshears, Paradise’s emergency-operations center coordinator.
After a particularly bad fire season in 2008 in the area, a grand jury report laid out critical shortcomings in preparedness. The report concluded that additional evacuation routes were necessary after thick smoke forced three main roads out of Paradise to close, and left a fourth choked with a single lane of traffic.
One new paved evacuation road has been built since then, a northbound route that took 10 years to complete. Kim K. Yamaguchi, who lobbied for the project when he was on the Butte County Board of Supervisors, said he has received thank-you messages from people who used it to escape the Camp Fire. “Touched my heart,” he said.
Officials say a plan put in place after 2008 to evacuate Paradise in phases to better control traffic flows didn’t work well because embers sparked hundreds of spot fires across the town, forcing evacuation orders to be issued in rapid succession.
Officials say it would take much more than a few million dollars to finance the road projects rural communities like Paradise need to evacuate thousands of people quickly.
Phil John is chairman of the Paradise Ridge Fire Safe Council, which has tried for years to advise residents how to create defensible space around their homes and what to take with them when they evacuate.
After the deadly and fast-moving Tubbs Fire decimated large parts of Santa Rosa last year, Mr. John said, he reworked his group’s safety presentations to put even more emphasis on how to evacuate quickly.
“My guts are tore up because I gave my whole life to teach people what to do, and it just didn’t work,” he said. “There’s people that are dead right now because we didn’t get to them, and I have to live with that.”
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