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  • Tom DeVries

  • Christopher Winterfeldt / The Merced Sun-Star

    Plumes of smoke from the Carsten fire block the sun in the Sierra National Forest in June 2013.

Viewpoints: A win-win solution for water and wildfires in Sierra forests

Published: Monday, Jun. 30, 2014 - 12:00 am

We all know where the water isn’t. It’s missing from streams, lakes, reservoirs and the snowpack.

I think I know where the water is, and what to do, plus save money. We need to cut down a lot of trees and plants in the Sierra – half or more. I’ve already started at my place.

We Californians started attacking and extinguishing wildfires pretty aggressively around 100 years ago. When I was younger, I fought fires, covered them for the press and had them at my own Sierra home, so I’m generally in favor of this.

But over the years, while fires were contained, trees and brush thrived, growing from covering about 30 percent of these mountains to 60 percent or more. And we’re kind of stuck; it has become not just convenient to fight fires, but urgent. With all that fuel – those small trees and brush – the fires burn really, really hot and destructively. Plus the forest lands are filling with homes like mine.

So in California we now spend as much as $1 billion a year on fighting wildfires – not all that successfully, either. Oh, and at my house we’re now paying a yearly Cal Fire assessment, plus a special fee to support our local volunteer department. Also, our fire insurance premiums are way up.

I propose we get out of this trap and make a large dent in our water problem, too.

The existing Sierra forests are not healthy. Around our place, which is largely surrounded by overgrown, brushy, tangled Sierra National Forest, even the deer have trouble getting around. It’s just too dense. Odd thing is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the national forest, is helping me fix my private ground. Its Natural Resources Conservation Service is paying me to thin and trim the 40 acres I own, making it into a healthy forest.

Tractors and a hand crew – soon to turn to wildfire duty – are tearing up decades of undergrowth, piling it for a masticator, a 30-foot tall beast that reduces brush and trees to a deep mulch. What will remain when they’re done is a mixed forest of pine and oak, the trees 20 feet apart, limbed so a grass fire won’t jump into the branches. Happy deer, happy me.

Ironically, the public lands around me will still be an untouched fire hazard. The additional irony is it costs at least three times as much per acre to fight a wildfire as the Department of Agriculture is paying to clean up my place.

And here’s the water part. Trees take water; a big one can draw 100 gallons a day out of the ground. All that junk forest in California is sucking up water that should be filling my spring and well and flowing downhill toward the rest of you. Rain and snow that falls on the overly dense canopy of leaves and branches evaporates into the air instead of leaching into the ground.

At a water problems meeting I went to in Mariposa this spring, a UC Merced professor named Roger Bales said that doing to the Sierra what I’m doing at my place might increase stream flows as much as 30 percent. If this research holds up, it’s like discovering a new California river that’s been here all along.

There is no way to build our way out of a drought, let alone climate change. Build a dam, spend a fortune, buy a few weeks. The Sierra is essentially our largest storage pool and we’re wasting it. California’s water system depends heavily on snow melting slowly over the summer and trickling down into reservoirs. Every year we lose millions of gallons of water to ugly, crowded, unhealthy forests. And we’re spending that billion bucks a year trying to keep fire from burning off the unhealthiness. Lose-lose, seems to me.

Instead there should be an army of crews in the Sierra doing what they’re already doing at my house – forest restoration. It’s cheaper than battling wildfires, much less expensive than building new dams and tunnels, prettier, better for growing trees, and a splendid new water source to get us through the coming dry times. Win-win, as they say.


Tom DeVries is a print and television writer who lives at 4,000 feet in Mariposa County.

Read more articles by Tom DeVries



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