Fighting Fire With Fire: Notes From The Wildland Urban Interface

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My house, deep in the heart of the wildland urban interface.

California must fight fire with fire, or risk losing one of its greatest assets in the battle against climate change: the ability of its forests to sequester carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are exacerbating climate change.

That’s right. We’ve got to burn things, or we’re going to get burned—if we haven’t been burned already. This grim warning is contained in a pair of recently released state government reports on the health and resiliency of California’s forests and their management going forward into the warming future.

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“Scientists have long established that California will become dryer and that climate change will increase the number and intensity of wildfires,” the bipartisan Little Hoover Commission reported last February in ‘Fire on the Mountain: Rethinking Forest Management in the Sierra Nevada.’ “With this information in front of California’s leaders, there are no excuses for inaction.”

The commission relied heavily on a draft of the California Forest Carbon Plan drawn up by the state’s Forest Climate Action Team, formed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 in response to four years of record drought conditions and the devastating bark beetle infestation that has killed 129 million trees, mostly in the southern Sierra Nevada range. The final draft of the Forest Carbon Plan was released in May.

“California is blessed with 33 million acres of forestland and an urban forest canopy that together capture and clean our water supply, provide habitat for countless wildlife, cool our cities, support local economies, and serve as spiritual and cultural centers for indigenous and local communities across the state,” the plan states. “Forested lands also are the largest land-based carbon sink with trees and underbrush drawing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in their cellulosic structure and in forest soils.”

That may be subject to change, the plan warns.

“Growing evidence, however, suggests these lands will become a source of overall net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if actions are not taken to enhance their health and resilience and to reduce the threats they face from wildfire, insects, disease, and a changing climate.”

Case in point: The Fountain Fire in 1992 burned 64,000 acres 40 miles east of Redding, destroying 300 homes and transforming the forest from a carbon sink into a net carbon emitter. According to the Forest Carbon Plan:

“The Forest Foundation estimated that forests and shrublands burned in the Fountain Fire released 11.9 million tons of GHGs into the atmosphere through combustion and the subsequent decay of dead trees and shrubs. That is equivalent to the GHG emissions from more than 2.1 million cars for one year.”

One can only hazard a guess at the amount of greenhouse gasses emanating from the Carr Fire, which is presently more than three times the size of the Fountain Fire and approaching 200,000 acres. So far it has killed eight people, destroying more than 1000 homes. Containment, after three weeks of fighting the blaze, is 59 percent.

More than half of California’s forest lands are managed by the USDA Forest Service, including a good portion of the Carr Fire. The Forest Service has been criticized by the timber industry and even some environmentalists for not permitting more thinning in national forests in recent decades, allowing lethal loads of fuel to build up in overgrown, unhealthy forests.

The perennially underfunded federal agency, thanks to the increasing frequency of large, catastrophic wildfires in the western United States, now spends more than half of its budget on fire suppression, up from 17 percent 20 years ago.

But as it turns out, according to the two reports, fire suppression is a major part of our present-day problem. Until European settlement in the 1800s, fire suppression as we know it didn’t exist in California.

When indigenous tribes arrived here more than 10,000 years ago, they were greeted by towering redwoods, sequoias, firs and pine trees that over millions of years had become fire-adapted to the hot, dry climate.

The indigenous people adapted to this same environment, using controlled fires to burn underbrush and clear space in the forest for growing food and medicine and to attract wild game.

Over time, their methods became quite sophisticated. Researchers estimate indigenous tribes burned as much as 4.5 million acres of forest and grassland annually—the state might exceed 1 million acres this year if the fire season continues at its present rate. The practice for the most part prevented the massive, earth-scorching wildfires we’re experiencing today.

While some settlers picked up on indigenous controlled burning techniques, roughly a century ago, after a series of calamitous wildfires in the midwest and west, our present fire suppression regime began in earnest. From then until now, putting fires out has been the main objective, not letting them burn.

“For 100 years, a culture of fire suppression in California’s forests has had disastrous results,” the Little Hoover Commission found. “Tinder-dry brush, shrubs and seedlings blanket the ground while trees increasingly crowd each other, creating thickets of smaller, unhealthier trees competing with each other for water and sunlight.”

The commission locates this culture of fire suppression in federal, state and local agencies, more than 80 of which collaborated on the Forest Carbon Plan. It can also be found in the state’s general population, 4.5 million of whom live in the so-called wildland urban interface, the hazard zones, which includes everyone who just lost their home on the outskirts of Redding and yours truly, 30 miles east of Redding in sparsely populated foothills packed with fuel—formerly known as trees.

No worries. Neither the commission report nor the Forest Carbon Plan suggests we cease protecting lives and property from wildfires. But both are calling for nothing less than a cultural revolution in the way we think about fire.

“While fire suppression will continue to be vitally important in protecting lives, property, and other assets at risk, continued exclusion of fire from California’s dry fire-adapted forests without commensurate restoration and fuel reduction will result in continued buildup of fuels and conditions which support more damaging fire that is difficult and costly to control,” the Forest Carbon Plan states. “In a self-reinforcing fashion, more damaging wildfire can promote more risk aversion and discounting of long-term benefits of restoration.”

Translation: we’re going to have to burn things to get out of this mess. That means allowing fires in uninhabited areas to burn their course—perhaps we’re seeing this strategy play out on the farthest reaches of the Carr Fire. It also means using prescribed fires, in much the same way as indigenous tribes once did, to thin the forest and restore its resilience.

In areas where prescribed fires aren’t feasible, thinning can done by machines, and the resulting biomass can either be burned in open slash piles or incinerated at a biomass energy facility.

Slash Pile on Sierra Pacific Industries land a quarter-mile from my house. Hope they chip it.

Needless to say, these methods face numerous federal, state and local regulatory hurdles, not to mention the culture of fire suppression. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

“Of the approximately 10 million acres in the Sierra Nevada alone, nearly six million acres of forestland are in dire need of restoration,” the commission reported. “So pressing is the need that scientists and government officials frequently repeat the same mantra—increase pace and scale. Work must be done faster on a much larger area.”

One major issue? Lack of infrastructure. Consider the 129 million dead trees, most of them in the southern Sierra Nevada. They fall over, injuring people and damaging property. As they decay, they emit greenhouse gases; they are also highly flammable. Logs are stacking up in the affected counties, because there’s not enough places to process them.

A study commissioned by the Forest Carbon Plan found that given the present state of the biomass energy, forest products and trucking industries, it will take 100 years to dispose of them.

More than half of California’s 33 million acres of forest land require similar treatment. The plan is to thin the forests, by every means available to us, and restore them to their fire-adaptive resiliency.

It’s not impossible. The Fountain Fire offers a happy ending of sorts. The majority of the 64,000 acres burned were managed by private timber companies Roseburg Resources, Sierra Pacific Industries and W.M. Beaty. As soon as the fire was extinguished, the companies immediately began restoration efforts.

“Twenty-five years later, the young, vigorously growing forest is once again providing a home for forest wildlife, and the streams, whose condition was of great concern, are again teeming with fish, amphibians and other aquatic life,” according to the Forest Carbon Report.

In 100 years, the rejuvenated forest and wood products made from it will sequester and estimated 8.1 million tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, not quite the 11.9 million tons emitted during the fire and its aftermath.

That’s considered a win. Such is the pace and scale we are dealing with.

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R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.
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