The western United States is enduring yet another devastating fire year, with just over 4.1 million acres already scorched in California, killing at least 31 people and forcing hundreds of others to flee their homes.
Wildland fires are now following a familiar pattern: larger, hotter and more destructive. A recent Los Angeles Times headline declared 2020 “the worst fire season”. Again, “some disappointed residents consider the state’s fire strategy.”
For decades, federal, state, and local agencies have prioritized fire suppression over prevention, investing billions of dollars to purchase and maintain firefighting equipment, and to purchase fire protection equipment and to educate the public.
But as climate change continues to fuel dry conditions in the American West, many experts say it is long time to focus on managing healthy forests that can withstand better fires and a more sustainable future. can add.
“Fears have always been part of our ecosystem,” said Mike Rogers, a former Asian National Forest Supervisor and board member of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees. “Forest management is like gardening. You have to keep the forest open and thin. “
Federal forest management dates back to the 1870s, when Congress created an office within the US Department of Agriculture to assess the quality and conditions of forests. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt oversaw the birth of the US Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of public land nationwide.
In California, forest management comes under the purview of the state’s 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 nearly 2 million dead trees have been removed or felled. In 2018, California set a target of treatment – which could include sledging, burning, pruning, or pruning trees – 500,000 acres of wildlife per year, yet Cal Fire is far from meeting that goal.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Cal Fire spokesman Christine McMore said. “There is always going to be more work.”
Cal Fire is constantly receiving injections of funds, helping to reduce the risk of wildfires, including better land management and training a new generation of forests. In 2018, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that would allocate $ 1 billion over five years to Cal Fire used on fire prevention measures. But experts warn that more funding is needed.
“It’s enough? Well, that’s enough for what we’re doing right now, but is it enough to get all the work that needs to be done in a year or five years or 10 years? That’s a lot Something’s going to happen, “McMorrow said.
Long before the founding of the country, Spanish explorers documented wildland fires in California. In 1542, the victorious Juan Rodríguez sailed along the Cabrillo coast and saw that what is now known as the Los Angeles Basin emits smoke. He called it “La Baya de los Fumos” or “Bay of Smoke”.
Studies by archaeologists and historians support a theory that Cabrillo must have been observing an early form of land management, including burning bushes and arcades to clean dry brushes and promote better conditions for big game hunting. .
Prescribed and controlled waters were integral to the American landscape for generations. In 1910, “The Big Burn” set fire to 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho, and Montana, killing at least 85 people and reintroducing US fire policy for years to come from forest management Began to drift away.
The US Forest Service ordered that all wildland fires be extinguished as soon as possible, eventually compromising on the so-called 10 o’clock policy, which insisted on suppressing the fire until dawn after it began.
As state policy prevents fires, as they ignite, the forests have a backlog of trees that are now suffocated by brush and other dry fuel. According to the US Forest Service, a researcher studying Stanislas National Forest in Northern California found records from 1911 that only 19 trees per acre appear in a portion of the forest. More than a century later, the researcher and his team counted 260 trees per acre.
Dense tree cover poses a major fire hazard, Rogers said.
“We have more large trees per acre because they are constantly growing, and there are young shrubs under these big trees that fuel the crown of the trees,” he said. “When a fire starts there, it is invincible.”
Drought, climate change and bark-beetle infection have all contributed behind the trees, leading some experts to push for creative solutions for managing California’s crowded forests.
A possible solution could turn dead and diseased trees into biomass energy before they could extinguish large-scale wildfires.
Jonathan Kussel founded the non-profit research organization Sierra Institute for Community and Environment in 1993 to try to understand how state and federal agencies can put leftover organic materials for use. The institute is now working closely with federal and state partners to supply wood chips from biomass facilities made from low-value vegetation that can burn organic material to produce heat and electricity.
Küssel estimates the process, when done correctly in confined barrels, to be faster cleaner than relying on natural gas for energy. It also facilitates what Kusel calls “suitable thinning of forests”, or approves small development, not only reducing the risk of wildlife, but contributing to waterways and lower carbon emissions by promoting healthy forests gave.
“We’re not going to succeed if we all try to stop the fire,” he said. “But we can make it less damaging … and we can try to put out small fires that can make housing in a healthy state.”
But finding buyers for biomass is a big question for the Sierra Institute. Biomass is considered a dirty word among environmentalists, warning that burning of plant material and releasing it into the air can increase carbon emissions.
Removing small growth from forests is also more expensive and not economically attractive because the focus can be on removing large growth, which Küler acknowledged. Still, as wildfires threaten to become larger and more dangerous, Kusel hopes a new locally-based biomass market can offset the cost of thinning the state’s forests by creating smaller, better-maintained facilities Which do not release hazardous pollutants into the air.
“Socially we have to think about our forests differently, but we have to invest and manage them differently,” he said. “We must do better.”