Murphy: Trial by fire

November 2, 2017 09:00 AM
Seeing entire neighborhoods wiped out by California wildfires has renewed the debate over the best fire prevention measures. Here’s one option that ought not to be considered: doing nothing.

The Northern California wildfires that have devastated wine country have taken a tremendous toll. Although firefighters and state officials have announced that the wildfires are expected to be “fully contained” in the next few days, the destruction across Sonoma and Napa counties has been horrific:

The Tubbs Fire destroyed 36,807-acres, killed at least 22 people and leveled 5,300 houses and buildings, mostly in and around the city of Santa Rosa, Calif.

The Nuns Fire further south destroyed 1,200 structures and killed one person.

Also destroyed in the fires that raged for weeks were archives of the tech pioneers William Hewlett and David Packard, including a decades-old memo in which Hewlett proposed designing a calculator that could fit in a shirt pocket.

The damage from these terrible fires — expected to soar into the multi-billions — has also rekindled the debate over forest management and how (or whether) federal and state natural resource managers should be more proactive in removing forest-floor fuel to reduce the threat of fires getting out of control, such as happened in California.

Timber industry sources always characterizes such initiatives as promoting “forest health,” whereas environmental advocates always thunder on about “giving industry a blank check” to simply log off the nation’s forestlands.

Somewhere in between lies a practical and positive compromise.

No responsible forester would overlook the need to better manage forests to at least reduce the threat of rampant, out-of-control wildfires that threaten homes and cities. Reason being, if people don’t manage forests, Nature will gladly take on the job.

When Nature “manages” forests, however, it’s done through unpredictable, often devastating forest fires ignited by lightning. That system worked well for millennia, when there was relatively little civilization to get in the way of a fire that might roar across tens of thousands of acres of timber.

We no longer have that luxury, as the California forest and brushfires of the last several years have conclusively proven.

A choice of tactics
But there are several aspects to promoting “fire-resilient forests,” as the current catchphrase styles fire- prevention efforts, and understanding the difference is key to sorting through the rhetoric coming from both sides of the debate over how to manage publicly owned forestlands. I know about these tactics because I’ve been there, done them, and they include:

Pre-commercial thinning. This is one of the worst forestry jobs one could possibly be stuck doing. It consists of sending a chainsaw-wielding crew into so-called “young” forests that were logged 20 or 30 years earlier. The goal is to mow down the thousands of saplings (called whips) and hundreds of smaller trees per acre that eventually become dry tinder for a raging forest fire.

Commercial thinning. This involves tagging and carefully logging select mature trees suitable for pulp or lumber production. The goal is to accelerate the growth of the remaining trees, while capturing value of the tress that are cut down. Again, it has the effect of removing excess fuel for some future fire.

Selective Logging. This is an alternative to clear-cutting, in which an entire stand of mature timber is removed, and the area re-planted. In selective logging, so-called “seed trees” are left behind to re-seed the areas opened up by the logging operation. This works on small stands of timber, usually on private land, but is rarely done on commercial timberlands or the national forest lands managed by USDA or BLM.

The other option is increased harvesting, which provokes bitter disputes between industry and activists. The impetus for boosting the timber harvest comes from the experience of the last 25 years of significantly decreased logging, following placement of the spotted owl on the Endangered Species list, which curtailed timber sales across the Pacific Northwest.

During that time, there have been several years that saw record-breaking wildfire seasons, to the point that the Washington Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service are now collaborating on ways to increase commercial thinning in forests in the state’s Olympic Peninsula. That’s notable because that area receives such abundant rainfall that the undercover beneath the canopy of mature trees is literally choked with vegetation, and once summer dries it all out, it’s a virtual tinderbox.

The point to all this is that the mindset of land management can no longer be slanted toward benign neglect. Whether it’s rangelands where eco-advocates want to ban cattle, or forests where environmental groups lobby against logging, three factors have taken the “Let Nature Handle It” option off the table:

One is the loss of economic productivity. When forests lie dormant, it makes for a nice postcard view for motorists driving along the highways that bisect such areas, but meanwhile the jobs that could and should result from commercial activities are lost.

Second, active management results in a healthier, more productive resource. When livestock are properly managed, they improve the health of rangelands. When forests are properly thinned, logged and re-planted, they support healthier trees and a more diverse ecosystem.

Finally, population. There are just too many people and far too much development bordering public lands to let managers allow Nature to take its course.

The result of failing to implement an active management approach is visible in videos of entire suburban neighborhoods totally leveled across Northern California’s wine country, as but the latest example.

As a nation, we need to continue exploring best practices for maintaining both the health and the productivity of the millions of acres of public lands.

But one practice that needs to be eliminated out of the gate is doing nothing.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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