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 percent 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 fuel load.
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 percent 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 refugees.”
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.
This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on July 30, 2018.