President Trump has a point about western wildfires. He claims that the manner in which western forests have been managed causes the catastrophic fire effects now experienced nearly every year. Trump is, for once, correct: western forest management on timber industry and national forest land has had a profound impact on whether or not catastrophic fire effects are experienced.
Of course, climate change, which Trump denies, is also a factor. As is drought. And as Californians have learned in recent years, it is often strong wind that causes wildfires to “blow up” into firestorms.
But while Trump is right to focus on forest management, he is wrong about the solution: even if it were feasible, “raking” the forest would not significantly impact how prone western forests are to catastrophic fire effects. That’s because forest “debris” is not the culprit but rather the manner in which western forests, whether on public or private land, have been managed since the end of WWII.
The dominant method of western forest management can be summarized in two words: clearcuts and plantations. Whether managing green forests or those which have been scorched by fire, the timber industry and US Forest Service have clearcut and planted, replacing diverse old forests with trees that are packed tight and all of one age. Research confirms what firefighters see on the ground: tree plantations are the most prone among all western forest types to blow-up into firestorms when the wind picks up. During Redding’s Carr Fire, for example, 1900 acres of tree plantations were totally incinerated.
In spite of these facts, one does not hear Governor Newsom speak much about the fire risk created by forest management. He is in denial on that score just as much as Trump is in denial about climate change. But our governor is not entirely to blame. He is being educated on these matters by the owners of Sierra Pacific Industries, California’s largest timber company, and folks from The Nature Conservancy.
The Nature Conservancy promotes national forest “thinning” as the solution to our fire problem as well as a way to increase water supplies. Their solution is based on simplistic models and backed by the US Forest Service and the Newsom Administration. All are claiming that we can log our way out of catastrophic fire danger.
The bulk of truly independent science, however, confirms what I have seen walking and studying every large fire that has burned in Northwest California since 1987: While wind blown fire can kill most trees in any forest, old growth forests are the least prone to catastrophic fire even as they store the most carbon. Clearcuts and tree plantations, on the other hand, are prone to blow up into firestorms which then roar out of the forest threatening and often devastating nearby communities.
The best way to reduce catastrophic fire risk from western forests is to change the manner in which those forests are managed. Restoration forestry can accelerate development of old forest characteristics while maintaining tree canopy shade to moderate fire behavior. “Thinning” western forests could also be effective in reducing fire risk but that would require following-up with managed fire or mechanical treatments every decade or so to control new trees and sprouting shrubs, a commitment the US Forest Service is institutionally incapable of making. The timber industry shows no interest in thinning the industrial forests they manage; clearcut-plantation forestry remains dominant on industrial forest land and with it the threat of extreme fire risk.
President Trump and Governor Newson should get out of denial. Climate change is real and continuing to deny it just delays addressing the effects. The role forest management plays in generating catastrophic fire effects is also real and the sooner we end clearcut-plantation forestry the safer we will be. The cost in lives and property of denying these key facts of modern western life is just too great.
Felice Pace has been a forest, river and public land activist in far Northern California since 1980. He was prominent in the Ancient Forest struggles of the 80s and 90s. Currently Felice coordinates the Grazing Reform Project and serves as Water Chair for the North Group Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club. He resides at Klamath Glen near the mouth of the Klamath River.