Future forest health needs fire to fight fire

California’s strides toward cleaner air can quickly go up in smoke during one big wildfire.

The constant threat of wildfire calls for a radical shift in attitudes toward forest management, not just to save homes and lives but the state’s overall air and water quality. That conclusion spurred the state’s Little Hoover Commission to recommend a coordinated effort to rethink how California cares for its forests.

“We see what happens when you don’t manage forests,” said commissioner Janna Sidley, who chaired the independent oversight agency’s subcommittee. Its report, “Fire on the Mountain: Rethinking Forest Management in the Sierra Nevada,” was released Monday.

Any solution will need wide federal and state cooperation, she noted. The federal government owns about 60 percent of California’s 30 million acres of forest.

“As a commission, we’re trying to bring attention to this issue and suggest how to manage the forest better,” Sidley added. “In the end, it benefits all Californians.”

With an estimated 129 million dead trees, California forests – particularly the Sierra’s 10 million acres – are extremely vulnerable to fire threats, the report said. During 2017, California forests died off at the rate of 2 million trees a month. Killed by drought and bark beetles, those browned pines and firs represent ready kindling. Reforestation efforts involve not only taking dead trees out, but putting new ones in and keeping the future forest healthy and more resistant to threats.

Among the recommendations in the report is using mechanical thinning – the select removal of trees – as well as controlled burns and managed fires to maintain forest health.

“Embracing the use of fire as a tool is something we could do immediately,” said Pedro Nava, the commission’s chairman.

In essence, it’s using fire to fight fire. Controlled (or “prescribed”) burns and managed fires (allowing a naturally occurring blaze to burn out) have been controversial, particularly in mountain communities. Nearby property can be at risk. Also, smoke from these burns impacts air quality.

“Our position has evolved,” said Nava, a former Assemblyman. “Back when I was in the Legislature (from 2004-2010), forestry issues were basically religion. It was the loggers vs. the environmentalists.”

The time has come to embrace fire as part of California forests’ DNA and a necessary tool in management, he added.

“Prescribed burns make sense economically,” Nava said. “A prescribed burn costs $200 an acre; fighting a wildfire costs $800 an acre. It adds up to a tremendous amount of money.”

Letting fires burn – even in a controlled way – feels contrary to how most people regard forest management, the report noted.

“The other part (of the plan) that we could do right away is public education,” Nava said. “It’s like the drought; people learned the importance of saving water. We need another effort on that scale. I suspect most Californians don’t know that forest covers one-third of our state. When you consider that scope, that deserves priority and attention.”

Part of the problem is that Sierra conifer forests became overgrown, stuffed with 100 to 400 trees per acre. Healthy managed forests have 40 to 90 mature trees per acre, according to the commission’s experts.

“People a hundred years ago would not even recognize these forests,” Nava said. “They are so overgrown, they’ve become unnatural.”

Those conditions lead to unhealthy trees that are less able to cope with drought, pests or fire.

For more than a century, forest firefighting efforts have focused on immediate suppression – putting fires out as quickly as possible, Nava said.

“We might not have so much work to do now had we not been living with (federal) policies created in 1911,” Nava said. “All these problems have come about because we created an unnatural forest setting. ... In hindsight, we’ve been doing it the wrong way for a long time.”

Raging infernos have become all too common in California. Nearly 1.4 million acres burned in 2017, according to Cal Fire estimates, including some of the worst wildfires in state history.

October’s Northern California firestorm destroyed nearly 9,000 structures and killed 44 people, making it the deadliest wildfire week in state history. December’s Thomas Fire – the largest in modern California history – torched more than 280,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and led to the massive Montecito mudslides that caused at least 21 fatalities.

“I had direct experience with this,” said Nava, who lives near Santa Barbara. “I had to evacuate during the Thomas Fire, then I saw what happened with flooding in Montecito. When forests are managed appropriately, fires have a much smaller impact.”

Cutting down the destructive force of future wildfires not only helps prevent the widespread destruction caused by flames and aftereffects, but helps air quality, the commission said.

Wildfires produce an astounding amount of smog. For its report, the commission focused on one example: The 2013 Rim Fire near Yosemite. Big and expensive, it took 5,000 people and $127 million to suppress. Ranked as the Sierra’s all-time largest wildfire, the Rim Fire torched 402 square miles – and churned out 11.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

“That’s nearly three times the total greenhouse gases produced by San Francisco in an entire year,” said project manager Krystal Beckham, who worked on the commission’s forest management study. “It’s as much as 2.3 million cars in a year – and that’s just one fire.”

The commission’s study also found that healthy conifer forests – those carefully managed as they grew – produced about half as much greenhouse gas emissions when burned as unhealthy drought-impacted forests, Beckham said.

“We are undoing all of our gains (in cutting greenhouse gases) by not managing our forests better,” she said.

It’s not just clean air but our water supply at stake, Nava noted.

“The air quality aspects really, really jump out (of the report),” he said. “It impacts our most vulnerable people – young and old – directly. That should matter to all Californians. But it’s not just air. The Sierra Nevada account for 60 percent of our state’s water supply. That underscores the significance of why we need to properly manage our forests and not neglect them.”

Tackling forest health will be expensive and long term but necessary, the commission concluded.

The report recommended that the Governor’s Tree Mortality Task Force transition into a steering committee for forest restoration and management. The commission also suggested an annual goal of treating 1 million acres – 500,000 each of U.S. Forest Service and non-federal land – plus 10,000 to 15,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management property.

“Right now, (the state) is able to treat just 20,000 acres a year and we have 30 million acres of forest,” Sidley said. “We need a paradigm shift to change priorities. We’ve always focused on suppression instead of prevention.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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