Lessons From The Camp Fire

Photo by Charles Finlay.

The first lesson from the Camp Fire, which last Thursday completely incinerated the town of Paradise, population 27,000, killing so far 44 people and destroying approximately 6400 homes and 300 businesses, is that President Donald Trump doesn’t have rural California’s back.

This may come as a surprise to the rural California electorate, the majority of whom voted for Trump. To Trump, who was defeated soundly in the Golden State by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, these supporters might as well be invisible, since he didn’t win the state.

They are losers in his mind, as evidenced by a tweet the president issued over the weekend while he was skipping ceremonies in France commemorating the soldiers who fought and died during WWI:

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Translation? Adolph Twitler just kicked tens of thousands of rural Californians attempting to recover from the most disastrous fire season in the state’s history square in the teeth.

There are plenty of well-documented reasons California’s fire season is becoming longer and more destructive. Two of the major ones are anthropogenic climate change and a century of fire suppression in a temperate environment where wildfires have been the norm for millions of years.

Fire suppression has been used to protect both homes and businesses in the wildland urban interface, as well as great stands of timber, which represent enormous stored value to the timber industry. Those are among the primary reasons that more than half of the state’s 33 million acres of forest are packed with volatile fuel loads and in need of treatment.

The onset of climate change has only exacerbated these conditions. The Camp Fire now tops the list as the most destructive fire in the state’s history. In fact, nine out of the 10 largest fires on record in California have occurred since 2000.

According to Anthony Leroy Westerling, a professor of management of complex systems at U.C. Merced who has studied wildfires in the western United States extensively, large wildfires in the region have been growing both in number and in the number of acres burned since 1980. There’s a reason for that.

“The question naturally arises: are these fires affected by climate change?” Westerly wrote online in The Guardian in 2016. “And the answer is simple: yes. Of course. A warming climate affects fire. Sure, there are other factors at play: invasive, fire-prone grasses are flourishing. Fire suppression led to more acres ready to ignite. But these factors compound or respond to the effect of climate on fire–they don’t explain it away.”

Westerling’s research has found that as the climate has warmed, fire season has lengthened in the western United States. In California, in the Sierra Nevada region, fire season was 65 days long in the 1970s. As successive springs came earlier and summers lasted longer, fire season was stretched out to 81 days in the 1980s, to 109 days in the 1990s and to 140 days in the 2000s.

The warmer temperatures have also brought drought and bark beetles, which have killed 129 million trees in the Southern Sierra Sierra Nevada between 2010 and 2017, according to USDA Forest Service field data. An estimated 8.8 million acres of California’s 33 million acres of forest is affected by drought-related tree mortality.

Of course the famously incurious Trump doesn’t know any of this data. Technically, the president is correct: There is indeed a management problem with our forests: with what we now know about climate change and its ongoing effects, we have to dramatically change our approach to forest management.

According to the California Forest Carbon Plan, which I wrote about in the aftermath of the Carr Fire, this new approach, as far as forests with heavy fuel loads are concerned, will involve the mechanical and hand removal of brush, small trees under 20-inches in circumference and other ladder fuels, while leaving has many larger trees intact as possible.

That’s pretty much the opposite of what most of the timber industry calls logging.

Why leave the larger trees standing? Simple. The larger the tree, the higher the amount of sequestered carbon. California’s large conifers have adapted to an environment that has always had wildfires. Thinning the forests to some approximation of their condition before European settlement will help ensure this valuable carbon sink survives the higher temperatures to come.

But when our climate-change-denying president says California’s forests need better management, that’s not what he’s talking about. He means “log it, graze it or watch it burn,” a sweet-nothing no doubt whispered into his ear by many right-wing Republicans across the rural western United States, including our own newly-reelected Republican, 1st District Rep. Doug LaMalfa.

I had to chuckle when I saw climate-change-denyier Doug’s feeble attempt to reprimand Trump on Facebook for treating his district like it was … Puerto Rico after a hurricane. He’s been spreading this whole “the government is mismanaging our forests let the timber companies take over” theory his entire career. By now, it’s become a Republican Party talking point.

Lesson No. 2 from the Camp Fire: Rep. Doug LaMalfa is not your friend.

I shall also paint newly re-elected state 1st District Assembly Member Brian Dahle with the same broad, reddish-orange strokes. What is it with these Republicans who run for public office denying that government can collectively do anything? LaMalfa blames Washington, D.C.; Dahle blames Sacramento. The result is the same: Nothing for the 1st District.

All of this is especially galling considering Dahle, as Assembly Minority Leader, signed off on the bipartisan Little Hoover Commission’s report on forest management in the era of anthropogenic climate change, “Fire on the Mountain: Rethinking Forest Management in the Sierra Nevada,” released earlier this year.

Written in conjunction with the Forest Carbon Plan, the commission’s report makes clear that private industry cannot conduct the amount of work that needs to be done in our forests. The Forest Carbon Plan presents an ambitious—and at the present rate of funding, impossible—goal to treat 1 million acres of the state’s 33 million acres of forest annually by 2030. That’s the amount it will take to make a difference. While sustainable logging will be included in the treatment, the profits won’t be enough to pay for the project.

That’s where the government, local, state and federal, comes in. It’s more than a little ironic that we live in a district where the majority of voters choose candidates who allege to be anti-government. As the Little Hoover Commission emphasized:

“Across a multitude of study topics, the Little Hoover Commission has long stressed the importance of trust in government. Here it is relevant again. Local communities often have little say in how the forests around them are managed. Yet they bear the immediate costs and consequences and are fertile ground for taxpayer resentment of government, their grievances a corrosive obstacle to facilitating trust in the public sector, whether at city hall, the county courthouse or the state Capitol.”

Let that serve as the final lesson to be learned from the Camp Fire. Anthropogenic climate change challenges all of us to come up with solutions. Often the solutions proposed by experts are abstract and difficult -- if not impossible -- to implement. But in this case, the objective, and the means of achieving it are clear, if we can act collectively.

Whether we can learn these lessons remains to be seen.

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas.
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33 Responses

  1. Bruce Vojtecky says:

    RV, I know the political mindset of north state voters personally. Several years ago I manned phones at the CSEA office on Hilltop Drive. I had a list of fellow classified employees of school districts in Shasta and Trinity counties. We were promoting the Democratic candidate for State Superintendent of Education. The Republican candidate was running on a promise to privatize classified employees because they were, in his words, parasites. There were a few I talked to who stated they would never vote for a Democrat even though I told them the Republican candidate wanted to take their job, not fake news but true news. That political climate appears to still be there.
    The other problem is LaMalfa is one of 53 California House members in a solid red district where he, and Herger before him, soundly trounced the Democrat candidate. At a Labor Day picnic in Anderson I talked to a electrician from Cottonwood who was running against Herger. He said the Democratic party would not give him any help. This is why the Democratic candidates for District 1 are one and done and move on. The Democrats have 52 other easier Districts to spend their money. Did the Democratic party give Audrey Denny any support?

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      I’ve almost given up on flipping District 1. For once, the Democrats had everything going for them: A festering tumor of a POTUS/GOP party leader. A do-nothing rubber-stamp mooch of an incumbent with a long history of voting against the interests of his constituents. A blue/female wave as a response to that. An incredibly appealing candidate generating lots of enthusiasm and funding (as opposed to the usual Bay Area carpetbagger or bearded left-over-from-the-60’s coffeehouse Trotskyite out of Chico).

      And she got trounced.

      I have a hard time believing that two years from now, that almost perfect storm be exceeded by an actual perfect storm. I can dream of pictures of the current guy in sexual congress with a goat surfacing a week before next Election Day, but even then, I don’t think GOP voters would reject the guy. They seem to love our current Molester-in-Chief, after all.

      • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

        I prefer to look at the glass as half-full, perhaps because I haven’t lived here as long as you, Steve. Denney did 4 to 5 percent better than previous Democrats and more importantly demonstrated she can raise funds. If Denney runs again, she has a number of things in her favor. First of all, the same “perfect storm” might exist, because we can count on Trump’s behavior deteriorating even further during the next two years, riling up the Democratic base. Second, the economy is overdue for a downturn and appears to be heading south, and Trump will get the blame. Third, anthropogenic climate change is real, wildfires, hurricanes and other climate-related natural disasters are on the increase, and the Republican Party’s non-response to the crisis will be their undoing.

        • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

          “Second, the economy is overdue for a downturn and appears to be heading south, and Trump will get the blame.”

          Mmmmm……yeah, that one could go either way.

          If the economy tanks in the next two years, you can probably bet the farm that the GOP will blame the only significant change at the federal level—the House going to the Democrats. In order for Denney to win, she has to overcome the registration hurdle. Are local GOP voters going to blame Trump and the Senate for an economic downturn? Or will the blame the newbies?

          If you read enough comments below political stories posted to Facebook by the local fish-wrap, you’ll come away with the impression that the large majority of local conservatives would find a way to blame Democrats if Trump dropped an H-bomb on Shasta Dam.

          • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

            Damn it Steve, I’m trying to be optimistic! (Although calling for an economic downturn would appear to be the opposite of optimism).

  2. R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

    I’m pretty sure Audrey Denney didn’t get any official help from the state Democratic Party. She has been signaling her intention to run again, but there’s been no official announcement.

    Both LaMalfa and Dahle ran against the Gas Tax, and in his campaign ads, Dahle bragged about defeating the Fire Tax. It’s all about draining the baby in the bath tub to them.

  3. Frank Treadway says:

    Typically, the CA Democratic Party does not spend funds on Democratic Congressional candidates, however, there are other ways they provide support. Audrey, young, smart should begin her 2020 CD1 campaign now. The only reason DCCC or DNC does not invest in CD1 is the lack of registered Democrats. It’s all about numbers when you go to put money into a race. Might not be fair to Democratic candidates, but it’s all about winning, not placing. Rumor: LaMalfa’s not running in 2020. Fact: Dahle will be even less effective as a Senator with the new Democratic Super Majority, plus one, under the Dome in SAC.

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      I predict Dahle takes a run at LaMalfa’s seat the moment LaMalfa says he’s done. Whatever you think about Republicans, it’s a given that Dahle would be more effective at representing the interests of his constituents than rubber-stamp LaMalfa has been. (World’s lowest bar to hurdle.)

    • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

      You’re absolutely correct Frank, the state and national Democratic Party writes off the 1st district because the numbers don’t pan out, it makes sense (to them) to spend the money elsewhere. I think this fact makes Audrey Denney’s performance in the election all the more remarkable. She’s also going up against a juggernaut of conservative talk radio and television (FOX News and Sinclair) that demonize anyone to the left of Richard Nixon a pinko commie libtard with virtual no rebuttal from competing viewpoints. Denney’s social media presence was strong, an increasing number of voters get their news there, but it’s not enough to close the gap.

  4. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    I hate to be The Pessimist among pessimists, but as someone who has worked professionally in the forest health game for decades, here is the “solution” that I firmly believe is our future: Most of our sick, overstocked forests are going to burn.

    How we manage those forests after they burn is another question. I don’t expect those who adhere to trite, empty cliches (“log it, graze it, or let it burn”) to ever understand the realities of commercial forest management practices or finances, so they will likely continue to be an obstacle well into the future.

    • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

      There’s no doubt Steve that more large destructive wildfires are in our immediate future. I think politicians should be pushing the Forest Carbon Plan as an FDR-style public works program that would not only put rural Californians to work at well-paid jobs, it’d help save the planet–presuming we can get the rest of the planet to tag along. That Paradise fire was/is some scary ass shit, but I’m tired of commentators saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this before.” This is what climate change looks like.

  5. Judy says:

    There is plenty of shame, guilt, ignorance and greed on all sides of the political spectrum. Please remember the well thought out Quincy Library Plan which came from the Feinstein Herger Forest Recovery and Protection Act of 1998 was stonewalled and stopped by wrong headed environmental groups filing endless suits against any activity which was not “natural”. Finally, the US Forest Service surrendered after fourteen years of litigation and the Plan only applies to Plumas National Forest part of which has recently been destroyed because funding never came from federal administrations of both parties.

    Somehow like bold achievements of the past, our time needs to find a way of getting things done rather than endless arguing and study. Building the Transcontinental Railroad with hand tools was accomplished in less time than it would take to file the necessary paperwork today. Likely, the Golden Gate Bridge would still be in litigation if proposed twenty years ago. It took almost that long to fix the Bay Bridge which doesn’t work well after an 1989 earthquake. The list is endless, the results heartbreaking.

    We need more compromise and leadership, less infighting and gamesmanship. The results of our failure are told in the ashes of Paradise.

    Randall R. Smith

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      I worked on HFQLG projects for about a dozen years. I’m not going to refute the above particulars point by point—I’ll just say that I worked on many HFQLG projects on national forests (not just the Plumas) that were completed, with mixed results.

      Perhaps the biggest failing of all was the central goal of goosing local rural economies by greatly increasing the supply of sawlogs.

      Why did that fail?

      At the risk of oversimplifying, it failed because producing an abundance of sawlogs, protecting wildlife and water, and fixing sick, overstocked forests are functionally and fiscally incompatible goals. Producing enough sawlogs for projects to pay for themselves was doomed to fail if the agenda included multi-use management.

      Most Americans don’t want our national forests managed as tree farms. True doctoring of our sick forests would require large subsidies. Political realities make that a long-shot, to say the least.

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        Another huge failure: The HFQLG was supposed to be a pilot program to measure the effectiveness of the various forest-health treatments. But the Forest Service is so grossly underfunded that valid “before” and “after” comparisons proved impossible, largely because the “before” data were thin, wrong, or non-existent.

        And it’s only gotten worse. More and more of the Forest Service’s fixed annual budget is being chewed up by fighting fires, leaving little money to do anything else. The agency literally lacks adequate knowledge of what it’s managing.

        • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

          During the past two years, the feds and California have managed to earmark some additional funding for treatment efforts, but as you say, year after year the increasing number of large fires is blowing through their budgets. We’re trapped in a downward-spiraling fire tornado.

    • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

      I agree Randall that there’s plenty of blame-sharing to go around in the past. But I strongly believe Trump and Trumpism represent a break from our traditions. The corrupt, climate change denying Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is a prime example. He tells voters he’s a Teddy Roosevelt style conservationist, then sells off public lands to polluters behind their backs. They see the increasing fires as license to log. The idea of a New Deal-style public works program to preserve our forests against climate change is completely foreign to them, but that is what is required.

      The aspirational goal of the Forest Carbon Plan, 1 million acres of forest treated annually by 2030, split evenly between the states and the feds, is the amount required to make a measurable difference in forest resilience. More than 80 federal, state and local government agencies, private industries and nonprofits collaborated on the plan, and the ability to compromise is stressed throughout it.

      One major compromise that must be reached is in regard to burning forest residue, including slash piles in the field and chips burned in biomass generating facilities. How much air pollution are we willing to put up with now, so that we can cut down on the number of 100,000 acre plus wildfires that spew carbon into the air by the gigatons?

      The Plan included references to landscape scale projects that have been successful in reaching compromises. I believe the Sierra Nevada Conservatory is one of them. Part of the project included a mini-biomass energy facility for small towns. We’ve got three biomass facilities in Shasta County, including the one in Burney, which receives state subsidies to stay in operation, last time I checked.

  6. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    Wish I had something profound and pithy at add to these comments. Sadly, there is nothing profound or pithy about any of these events. Maybe an AMEN will have to do.

  7. Larry Winter says:

    There’s some great fire behavior modeling programs out there that use geospatial mapping techniques using the tons of data the Forests Service has been collecting over the years. I have to give Republicans credit for being ahead of the game compared to Democrats as far as legislation but they shoot themselves in the foot with budget cuts. The recent omnibus spending bill that changes fire borrowing starting in 2020, also included a requirement for mapping potential fire behavior for communities at risk. Here’s the part I like.

    SEC. 210. Wildfire hazard severity mapping for communities.

    (a) Map required.—Not later than 2 years after the date of the enactment of this section, the Secretary of Agriculture, acting through the Chief of the Forest Service, shall—

    (1) develop and publish a geospatial map appropriate for community-level use that depicts wildfire hazard severity to inform at-risk communities that are—

    (A) adjacent to National Forest System lands; or

    (B) affected by wildland fire, as determined by the Secretary; and

    (2) disseminate the information under paragraph (1) in an appropriate, web-based format for use by such communities to—

    (A) improve understanding of their risk profile;

    (B) clarify thinking on the nature and effect of wildfire risks; and

    (C) develop plans to manage and mitigate those risks.

    (b) Purposes of map.—The purposes of the map required under subsection (a) are as follows:

    (1) To inform evaluations of wildfire risk.

    (2) To prioritize fuels management needs.

    (3) To depict the relative potential for wildfire that could be difficult for suppression resources to contain and that could cause ignitions to structures.

    (c) Consultation.—In carrying out subsection (a), the Secretary of Agriculture and Chief of the Forest Service shall consult with—

    (1) the Secretary of the Interior;

    (2) the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency;

    (3) other appropriate Federal agencies;

    (4) States;

    (5) relevant colleges, universities, and institutions of higher education with relevant expertise; and

    (6) other entities, as appropriate.

    (d) At-risk community defined.—The term “at-risk community” has the meaning given the term in section 101 of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 (16 U.S.C. 6511)

    I also think that we need to tap into the Department of Homeland Security for funding and increase the “scope and scale” of projects, starting with communities and then expanding out to the forests at-large. We have to view this as an emergency that carries more weight than environmental and economic concerns.

    We also need to enforce fuel loading dangers as a public nuisance on private parcels as well as provide safety zones withing communities at risk to lessen the need to evacuate out of town on a moments notice. Were seeing the problems of too many people trying to leave at the same time.

    The science is there to help, we just need the political will to push forward.

    We can’t wait.

    • R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

      I’m not positive, but I think Redding’s response to that federal statute is included in the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan, released in 2015. In the “Wildfire” section of the report, there’s a detailed description of a catastrophic event with nearly the exact same parameters as the Carr Fire, including a detailed map.

      I recently got a glimpse of the pace and the scale required to make Redding’s open space more fire resilient when I went on a tour with Randall Smith. I think his upper end estimate was something like $2 million annually to restore and then maintain those areas. The story’s in the archives.

  8. Beverly Stafford says:

    I just saw a homeless man holding a cardboard sign that read, “Anything helps – except Trump”

  9. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Thank you for a great article R.V.

  10. Judy says:

    The cure for our two centuries of forest folly won’t be free, won’t be easy, won’t come quickly. Surely, blame, further inaction, litigation, conversation, and denial mean more Camp Fires and they are more expensive than working toward a solution. Choice is ours to make.

    “All the questions which can come before this nation, there is none which compares in importance with the central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”
    Theodore Roosevelt 1910

    Randall R. Smith

  11. Bruce Vojtecky says:

    While California is bone dry from no moisture, here in Phoenix, the desert, we just had the wettest October in history with Monsoon floods. How do you change that?

  12. Gary Tull says:

    Nov 23 report is expected to provide scientific assessments of climate risks and the extent to which people can adapt
    https://news.trust.org/item/20181123115623-mklk0/

  13. Bruce Vojtecky says:

    AZ news reports that scientists at Yale and Harvard Universities, way above my intellect, are proposing dimming the sun to combat global warming. They say this could be done by spraying sulfate particles into the lower Stratosphere. Are Chem Trails real?

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