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California’s Forests are on Fire…Again

Suffering from the smoke from wildfires should not be a requirement for living in the West

August 23, 2022

Gray skies, ash covering the streets, and the perfume of the burning forest have become an all-too-common occurrence of summer in the West. 

On July 29, at approximately 2:15 PM, a wildfire ignited in northern Siskiyou county, where almost 50 percent of the land is federally managed

By the end of the day, the blaze had grown to over 315 acres; not as bad as it could be, considering the 100-degree temperatures and the rugged terrain it was burning. 

In just 24 hours, the McKinney Fire exploded to over 30,000 acres. 

In two days, the inferno had grown to the largest fire in the state and burned an area the size of Oakland. The resulting pollutants killed thousands of fish in the Klamath River, four fatalities have been reported, and thousands of residents were evacuated

This recent fire is just another example of how mismanagement of the National Forests contradicts the claim that forest managers are effectively protecting nature. In doing so, millions of lives are endangered.

As the Forest Service admits:

Wildland fire can be a friend and a foe. In the right place at the right time, wildland fire can create many environmental benefits, such as reducing grass, brush, and trees that can fuel large and severe wildfires and improving wildlife habitat. In the wrong place at the wrong time, wildfires can wreak havoc, threatening lives, homes, communities, and natural and cultural resources. 

The U.S. Forest Services recognizes the harm that a wildfire at the wrong time and place could cause damages beyond repair. Even with this knowledge, they have changed their policy from extinguishing fires to managing them. Even a lightning fire in the middle of the central valley or a wildfire started from the sparks coming from a trailer’s blown tire. Would anyone agree that these random events occurred at the right time or place? Unless the fire was a planned prescribed burn, it is not a fire that should be allowed to burn. 

Yet, before natural wildland fires in our forests are allowed to burn, the damage from the last 100 years of neglect must be cleaned up. There are over 129 million dead trees in California’s forests. These trees have died as a result of three significant factors: Overcrowded forests, Bark Beetle infestations, and drought. 

In the 1980s, over 12 billion board feet of lumber were logged out of federal forests. The logging companies replanted diverse forests with a single species of tree that grew at excessive rates. Companies assumed that in the future, they would harvest as many if not more trees as in previous years. 

Unfortunately, in 1994 Bill Clinton adopted the Northwest Forest Plan, which decreased the amount of logging on federal lands to a level not seen since the 1930s and 40s. The reduced logging combined with the mass plantations of single species forests has led to overgrowth and infestation of bark beetles. 

Bark beetles are common pests of conifers. When Bark Beetles attack a tree, it releases pheromones that attract more beetles until the tree is overwhelmed and killed. Entire forests containing only one type of conifer can very quickly be destroyed. 

Hotter summers and drier winters have left the forests in a very fragile state. Struggling to obtain necessary nutrients in an ever-more hostile environment would make even the hardiest species labor to endure. As California continues to see drought conditions year after year, the number of trees dying in the forest will continue to rise. 

The U.S. Forest Service can slow this by reducing the density of flora competing for resources. If 15% of the trees that have the lowest possibility of surviving are removed from the forests annually, within five years there will be a massive reduction in unhealthy trees, and the ones that are left will not have such onerous competition. 

We are at a turning point. 

Does the U.S. Forest Service allow fires to burn their natural course and destroy our natural treasures like the Ferguson Fire, obliterate our communities like what happened in the Camp Fire, and destroy the natural resources of our forests as in the August Complex?

Or do they choose to fight the unwanted and dangerous fires that threaten lives, homes, communities, and natural and cultural resources? Do they endeavor in reconstructing a healthy forest? That entails removing ground litter and dead trees that fuel massive wildland fires, instituting responsible logging practices, and replanting diverse and native plants. 

Suffering from the smoke from wildfires should not be a requirement for living in the West.

This can be remedied. 

Spenser Stenmark covers natural resource management, forestry, fire ecology, and other critical policy issues affecting the Pacific Northwest.
Catalyst articles by Spenser Stenmark