Let’s try this one more time.
Climate change is real. It isn’t, however, the biggest driver of wildfires in the West and particularly California that have shown a pattern of getting significantly larger since the 1950s.
The fact the media that is headquartered in concrete canyons and not in the proverbial woods has now stumbled on the concept of prescribed burns will likely not change the misguided assumption that greenhouse gas per se is the primary and most significant responsible factor in the fact 4 million acres and counting have been torched so far this year in California.
The hysteria level is too high.
Again, climate change is real. But the biggest contributing factor to the massive infernos of today is development patterns and overzealous environmental dictates. That’s right. Both “evil” development and “pure” environmental zealots borne in the streets and not in for field are co-conspirators in making wildfires massive.
There have been a lot of articles lately about how indigenous Americans — as well as other so-called “uncivilized” natives on other continents such as Australia — purposely set fires to encourage the growth of edible vegetation and to allow the sprouting of oaks and similar trees to produce nuts for harvesting.
Early American forests were dotted by meadows created on purpose by fire. At the same time deliberately set fires cleared out entanglements of small trees and brush that fuel the rapid spread of fire.
Prescribed burns are used by the Forest Service and National Park Service although to a lesser degree than they were 40 years ago. There are reasons for that. First, there are more areas of risk — read that human development sprinkled throughout the mountains bordering Forest Service land. These range from “cabins” or primary residents on small parcels to developments such as full scale subdivisions such as Pine Mountain Lake and communities that have sprung up and grown on particularly risky terrain such as Arnold.
Not only has that limited prescribed burns but it has shifted the priority for firefights in such areas to protect life and property when 40 years ago containment was the biggest focus when wildfires started.
The same issue with prescribed burns being banished by development and government policies is also true of hilly wild lands near urban areas and vast stretches of the Central Valley.
Back in the 1960s it was common practice for prescribed or practice burns around communities such as Lincoln in Placer County on the edge of the Sierra foothills where I grew up. The California Division of Forestry along with Lincoln Fire Department volunteers would deliberately set fires in dry grassland and fields along roads and major corridors such as Highway 65. They did so to create fire buffers of charred land along roadways where fires often started due to discarded cigarettes or from vehicles.
Ranchers would do the same thing on parts of their rolling terrain.
It was always done on days of little or no wind with high humidity.
Those days ended with the advent of air quality rules.
To restart that practice in some areas such as Lincoln, the Bay Area or the rolling hills ringing Los Angeles Basin is dicey today. There were 16 million Californians back when controlled burns were used in places like Lincoln. Today there are 40 million Californians. Today Cal Fire estimates 10 million people reside in high risk fire zones. That’s easily 10 times more than 60 years ago.
And irony of irony, smoke from wildfires are not counted against California’s effort to attain cleaner air while controlled burns to reduce fire risk are next to impossible to secure approval in many parts of the state.
If you visit the 7.5 square miles that make up Yosemite Valley on an annual basis you will notice there are prescribed burns on virtually a yearly basis. It doesn’t make the valley immune from fire risk but it does greatly reduce the chances.
Controlled burns are significantly less frequent in the rest of the 1,189 square mile national park.
Some 30 or so miles to the south prescribed burns two years ago in parts of the Stanislaus National Forest likely reduced the ferocity of the fire that swept through Darnelles and stopped short of Kennedy Meadows. Would more prescribed burns have helped? There’s a very high probability. Is there a chance for the Forest Service in the aftermath of 4 million acres burning in California this year to be able to pick up the pace of prescribed burns? It’s highly unlikely.
By chance and not be design we have boxed in the fire management experts. Development patterns aside, the environmental laws that make it possible to challenge and delay fire management initiatives are more culpable than anyone wants to admit in terms of what is now happening in the Golden State.
There is little doubt drought allowed for a massive uptick in back beetle infestations that killed an estimated 129 million trees in California.
But efforts to remove tinder dry dead trees are often blocked or delayed by environmental lawsuits.
Such was the case after the 2013 Rim Fire that burned 257,314 acres outside of Yosemite as well as part of the national park near Hetch Hetchy. Many logging operations today remove burned trees that are dead or dying after wildfire to salvage useable lumber. Some environmentalists don’t see it that way believing that the logging is destroying the ecological system.
Then there is the issue of how nature regenerates itself.
A hike to Smith Peak at 7,751 feet south of Hetch Hetchy three years ago featured a charred landscape that showed signs of life being renewed. Also as you neared Smith Peak the terrain was much more chocked with Manzanita after the fire than before.
Due to its relative remoteness it is no big deal.
But in areas like Santa Rosa where neighborhoods burned three years ago and partially burned again this year, the aftermath of fires means brush will have the upper hand in the initial years creating the potential for more destruction.
It underscores the foolishness of our development patterns and what would be tragic high comedy if the fact it wasn’t so insane — the ability of concerns in other states to cash in cap and trade funds collected from California firms for greenhouse gas reduction projects in other states that include reforestation efforts.
A Cal Berkeley study in 2018 noted that the bulk of the billions of dollars generated by the program in its first three years went to projects in other states. Imagine the difference that could make in forestry and wild land management in California to clean our air by reducing wildfire danger.
The rage over climate change is glossing over simple solutions while at the same time putting in place initiatives such as cap and trade on the backs of Californians with little of that helping improve air quality in California.
Yes, climate change has always played a part in wildfires. But our disconnection from workable solutions spurred by an assumption they go counter to what should work because protestors in Times Square yelling out politically correct self-righteousness know better than Miwuks who co-existed with forests and wildlands for centuries or those experienced in forest fire management is the bigger contributing factor to bigger and bigger wildfires.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.