2018-11-14 16:23:17 UTC
(The chickens are coming home on those who wanted to immediately
stop all outdoor fires, and stop logging. Do recall, the indigenous
people regularly burned off the Yosemite Valley.
Forrest Rangers we talked to in the 1990s correctly predicted this.)
California's Devastating Fires Are Man-Caused -- But Not In The Way They
Texas Public Policy Foundation VP and former California legislator
IDYLLWILD, CA - JULY 26: The Cranston Fire burns in San Bernardino
National Forest on July 26, 2018 near Idyllwild, California. Fire crews
are battling the 4,700-acre fire in the midst of a heat wave. (Photo by
Mario Tama/Getty Images)
California is once again on fire. Northern California’s Carr Fire has
killed six people, two of them firefighters, and continues to burn out
of control, claiming more than 700 homes and about 100,000 acres.
As a citizen-soldier in the California Army National Guard for two
decades, I often heard the gallows humor quip that California’s four
seasons were: flood, fire, earthquake and riot.
But, what was once an expected part of living in the Golden State is now
blamed on larger forces. A crisis, we are told, should never go to waste.
In that vein, the Sacramento Bee editorial board blamed the Carr Fire
foursquare on a man-caused buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
In an editorial headlined, “The Carr Fire is a terrifying glimpse into
California’s future,” they write, “This is climate change, for real and
in real time. We were warned that the atmospheric buildup of man-made
greenhouse gas would eventually be an existential threat.”
The Bee editorial board goes on to attack President Trump for proposing
to end California’s exceptional waiver from federal law regarding auto
emissions—in this case, California’s push to curtail tailpipe carbon
dioxide, something never envisioned when the Clean Air Act was debated
in 1970. At the time, the concern was pollution that directly harmed
health rather than carbon dioxide, a naturally occurring gas exhaled by
every living animal.
The problem with the Bee’s editorial is that making a passionate
argument is no substitute for the truth.
In 2005 while a freshman California Assemblyman, I had the chance to
visit Northern California and meet with the forest product industry
professionals who grew, managed, and harvested trees on private and
public lands. They told me of a worrisome trend started years earlier
where both federal and state regulators were making it more and more
difficult for them to do their jobs. As a result, timber industry
employment gradually collapsed, falling in 2017 to half of what it was
20 years earlier, with imports from Canada, China, and other nations
filling domestic need.
As timber harvesting permit fees went up and environmental challenges
multiplied, the people who earned a living felling and planting trees
looked for other lines of work. The combustible fuel load in the forest
predictably soared. No longer were forest management professionals
clearing brush and thinning trees.
But, fire suppression efforts continued. The result was accurately
forecast by my forest management industry hosts in Siskiyou County in
2005: larger, more devastating fires—fires so hot that they sterilized
the soil, making regrowth difficult and altering the landscape. More
importantly, fires that increasingly threatened lives and homes as they
became hotter and more difficult to bring under control.
In 2001, George E. Gruell, a wildlife biologist with five decades of
experience in California and other Western states, authored the book,
“Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests: A Photographic Interpretation of
Ecological Change Since 1849.” Gruell’s remarkable effort compared
hundreds of landscape photographs from the dawn of photography with
photos taken from the same location 100 years later or more. The
difference was striking. In the 1850s and 1860s, the typical Sierra
landscape was of open fields of grass punctuated by isolated pine stands
and a few scattered oak trees. The first branches on the pine trees
started about 20 feet up—lower branches having been burned off by
low-intensity grassfires. California’s Native American population had
for years shaped this landscape with fire to encourage the grasslands
and boost the game animal population.
As the Gold Rush remade modern California, timber was harvested and
replanted. Fires were suppressed because they threatened homes as well
as burned up a valuable resource. The landscape filled in with trees,
but the trees were harvested every 30 to 50 years. In the 1990s,
however, that cycle began to be disrupted with increasingly burdensome
regulations. The timber harvest cycle slowed, and, in some areas,
stopped completely, especially on the almost 60% of California forest
land owned by the federal government. Federal lands have not been
managed for decades, threatening adjacent private forests, while federal
funds designated for forest maintenance have been "borrowed" for fire
suppression expenses. The policies frequently reduce the economic value
of the forest to zero. And, with no intrinsic worth remaining, interest
in maintaining the forest declined, and with it, resources to reduce the
Some two decades ago, California produced so much wood waste from its
timber operations, including brush and small trees from thinning
efforts, that the resulting renewable biomass powered electric
generating plants across the length of the state. But cheap, subsidized
solar power, combined with air quality concerns (wood doesn’t burn as
cleanly as natural gas) and a lack of fuel due to cutbacks in logging,
led to the closure of many biomass generators. What used to be burned
safely in power generators is now burned in catastrophic fires.
Including the growing capture and use of landfill methane as a fuel,
California’s biomass energy generation last year was 22% lower than it
was 25 years before.
The issue was summarized by the Western Governors’ Association in their
2006 Biomass Task Force Report which noted:
…over time the fire-prone forests that were not thinned, burn in
uncharacteristically destructive wildfires, and the resulting loss of
forest carbon is much greater than would occur if the forest had been
thinned before fire moved through. …failing to thin leads to a greater
greenhouse gas burden than the thinning created in the first place, and
that doesn’t even account for the avoided fossil fuel greenhouse gas
emissions due to the production of energy from the forest thinnings. In
the long term, leaving forests overgrown and prone to unnaturally
destructive wildfires means there will be significantly less biomass on
the ground, and more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The Sacramento Bee editorial concludes with a stark warning: “California
must plan now for these and other aspects of global warming, as more of
the state becomes too hot, too dry, or too fire- or flood-prone to
safely live in, and as more of the world braces for the era of climate
Whether global climate change is a problem that can be solved by
California is a dubious proposition—one year’s worth of emission growth
in China is greater than California’s total emissions. But the action
needed to reduce the state’s growing forest fire threat would be the
same regardless of one’s belief in any problems posed by climate change:
start managing our forests again.
Chuck DeVore is Vice President of National Initiatives at the Texas
Public Policy Foundation. He was a California Assemblyman and is a Lt.
Colonel in the U.S. Army Retired Reserve.