California needs to fight Wildfire with fire and stop building houses in the forests

Battalion chief with Cal Fire Jonathan Cox said the rise in the number of wildfires over the last several years has been “the new normal” in California.

There have been larger and more destructive fires year over year. It is obviously requiring additional resources not just from California but from throughout the United States to get ahead of it.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) is the State of California’s agency responsible for fire protection in State Responsibility Areas of California totaling 31 million acres, as well as the administration of the state’s private and public forests.

CAL FIRE Budget

Budget Act of 2016-2017    $1.862 billion
Wildland Fire Budget         $943 million
Emergency Fund               $424 million

In Dec 2017, the USDA Forest Service today announced that an additional 27 million trees, mostly conifers, died throughout California since November 2016, bringing the total number of trees that have died due to drought and bark beetles to an historic 129 million on 8.9 million acres. The dead trees continue to pose a hazard to people and critical infrastructure, mostly centered in the central and southern Sierra Nevada region of the state.

The USDA Forest Service will continue to focus on mitigating hazard trees and thinning overly dense forests. The Tree Mortality Task Force (TMTF) removed about 1 million trees in 2017.

There are also non-fire programs that protect watersheds and restore forests, making them more
resilient to wildfire and drought.

Thin out the forests and use prescribed fires

In 2015, Scott Stephens, a professor at Cal’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on wildfire science noted the shift to year-round wildfires in southern and northern California.

The U.S. Forest Service managers who were overseeing the project told Stephens that the frequency of the fires on Mt. Laguna and the shifting climate had made the area unsuitable for Jeffrey pine.

“They don’t think they’re going to get the conifers back,” said Stephens. “It was clear to them that the area was shifting to mixed hardwood forests [which can tolerate drier, warmer conditions and greater fire frequency than coniferous forests].”

Vast portions of California’s coniferous forests, from the Sierra to the coast ranges, are likely to shift to hardwoods and grassy savannas in coming decades.

A few decades ago, fire-fighters could use landscape-scale strategies to control fires. In some cases, fires could even be allowed to burn, or merely directed instead of expunged. This was especially the case if the fires were meandering and not particularly fierce.

There has been a large growth of residences in forested areas, which are more expensive to protect.

Fire-fighting budget has ever gone over 50 percent. In the early 1990s, it was below 20 percent. And every dollar that is spent on fire-fighting is a dollar that can’t be spent on forest restoration, wildlife and fisheries programs, recreation, and infrastructure.

California’s coniferous forests could be at least partially protected with some basic changes in land use policy. The explosive growth in housing must be controlled. People who build in the firezones need to be required to pay for their protection.

Forests are as volatile as gasoline because of the poor management policies of the past. Clear-cut logging and replanting has left vast areas stocked with excessive numbers of young closely-spaced trees that are as flammable as tinder. Excessively aggressive fire suppression, particularly in the early to mid-20th century, exacerbated the problem: If every fire is extinguished, the forests become choked with highly flammable deadwood, brush and “doghair” timber.

There needs to be aggressive thinning and “prescriptive” fire programs. Using chainsaws, heavy equipment and low-level fires to thin timber. Forests need large, well-spaced trees that were resistant to catastrophic burning.

Thinning is not a solution for much of the Sierra Nevada. Only 28 percent of the landscape can be mechanically thinned. The rest is too steep or remote. You cannot thin your way out of the problem. You’ve got to use fire. The 2014 interagency National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy calls for expanding the use of prescribed burns and letting more wildfires burn.

Pass the Disaster Recovery Reform Act

The Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) needs to be passed to increase pre-disaster mitigation against wildfires and earthquakes.

It costs less to prepare our communities than to help them recover. In general, every $1 spent on predisaster mitigation will save us $4 to $8 in costs avoided in recovery.

Some examples of how the DRRA helps better prepare and protect our communities:
• Expands mitigation funding for areas affected by a fire and makes funds available for local projects to
protect communities against wildfire, such as (Secs. 603 and 604):
o Vegetation management/fuel control
o Installation of fire-resistant roofing and other building materials
o Creation of fire buffers around vulnerable buildings
o Stabilization efforts in the wake of a fire to protect fire-affected areas against mudslides