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. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.

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