This summer’s wildfires have taken a terrible toll on California. As firefighters gain control and residents begin to rebuild their lives, big questions are emerging about how we invest in our natural resources to reduce wildfire risk and restore healthier, more resilient forests.
Few will argue that many of California’s forests are in poor condition, but there is far less consensus on how to fix them, particularly when partisan politics intervene. We need to look at the big picture and where we want to go, not focus on just one piece of the problem. For forests, that means also considering the surrounding watersheds that are the source of much of the state’s water supply.
Wildfires wreak havoc on streams and rivers that feed our reservoirs. Multiple studies – including recent analyses by the U.S.Geological Survey and Pacific Forest Trust – show that wildfires affect water quality while they burn, but also for months and years after they are contained.
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Ash pollutes the water supply during an active fire, while post-fire runoff causes downstream sediment. This was vividly demonstrated after the2013 Rim fire. The Carr and Hirz fires are damaging some of the north state’s primary watersheds that deliver water to the Shasta and Whiskeytown reservoirs, which are key components of the Central Valley Project. These forests, meadows and streams are essential to clean water for millions of Californians, as well as agriculture.
Given the rising intensity of today’s wildfires, we need to rely on science rather than a one-size-fits-all quick fix. Still, the inevitable finger-pointing has begun, with the Trump administration calling for large-scale commercial logging to solve the problem of our highly flammable forests.
It would be far more productive to address the whole forest system and to protect people, wildlife and our water. Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, whose district was devastated by the Tubbs fire last year, has proposed long-term, significant funding from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to get these solutions in place.
This isn’t the first time that forest management is at the center of wildfire debates, and it won’t be the last. But if we have learned anything from years of wildfire,drought and pest outbreaks, it’s that restoration and protection of forested watersheds is a proven, cost-effective tool to reduce fire risk and flood intensity, while increasing water supply and storage and improve water quality. This means focusing on reducing the most flammable forest fuel, such as crowded stands of small trees, dry brush and grass, and reintroducing prescribed fires. We need to keep and manage older, larger trees– which are more fire-resistant and also store more carbon – not cut them down.
With the warming climate, we need to prepare now, not by relying on out-of-date practices that have led to overcrowded young forests, but by investing in modern forest management and conservation. Restoring the state’s forests to health – and keeping them that way – is the most effective and least expensive way to reduce the threat and intensity of wildfire and to protect our water quality and supply.
Laurie Wayburn is co-founder and president of Pacific Forest Trust,a nonprofit think tank and land trust based in San Francisco. She can be contacted at email@example.com.