Growth of population and of wildfires in California
Mike De Lasaux, a forester with the University of California's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the state ideally would burn hundreds of square miles of land with surface fuels annually, but he praised any efforts to reduce dangerously overgrown forests. The current plan moved forward following a recent agreement between state and federal agencies along with environmental, logging and recreational interests. -- Weber, Associated Press, Dec. 14, 2017
De Lasaux works in Lassen and Plumas counties, where there is continual tension between private, state and federally managed forests and every time a fire starts, fingers start pointing. While it is possible that his prescription might work under ideal conditions in his region, we don't think much of it as a statewide idea.
We cannot wait to hear what Seyed "the Mendacious" Sandredin, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and Scourge of Burn Days has to say about this. He might welcome it, of course, as yet another outside source to blame for his district, which contains the worst non-attainment for Clean Air Act standards in the nation.
The impact to Global Warming from these burns must be considered somewhere despite the high costs to government to fight wildfires with more than a hundred million bug-dead trees in the forests. But controlled burns, if they remain controlled, would presumably produce less global warming than fires like the ones we have had this autumn.
We should also consider forest and grassland wildlife, which have taken huge blows from drought and fire in the last decade, and will take more in the future as wildfires and forest fires become year round events.
Then there is the problem of wind. More than 80 percent of wildfires are caused by humans, and fires not caused by cigarettes originate largely from what began as "controlled burns" -- from campfires to debris burns that got away from the controllers -- and wind is one very powerful reason.
California cannot safely support a human population of 40 million and growing. It is putting more and more pressure on Nature, expecting that science and technology can manipulate Nature to become safe and nourishing.
This is a complicated proposition. Native Americans used controlled burns as a part of their care of the oak trees that supplied the acorns vital to their diet. But their population was around 300,000-400,000 before the European invasion. We aren't sure controlled burning under these population conditions is worth the risk. On the other hand, the risk of catastrophic wildfires is here and its growth in frequency and damage is a function of the population growth in California, which cannot be halted because the economy now depends to an absurd and destructive extent on it. -- blj
California will set more blazes to try to stop wildfires
California's seemingly endless cycle of wildfires is prompting authorities to make plans to set more "controlled burns" to thin forests choked with dead trees and withered underbrush that serves as kindling to feed monster blazes that force entire communities to flee, destroy homes and take lives.
Fighting wildfires that burn out of control is extremely expensive and even when authorities make mammoth efforts to put out the blazes, they can still cause expensive property and infrastructure losses when the flames reach populated areas. In October, thousands of California homes burned and 44 people died from wildfires in the state's most renowned wine region north of San Francisco.
This week, while a fire northwest of Los Angeles still raged after destroying more than 700 homes, the U.S. Forest Service and the state fire agency warned that the threat will remain high even after that blaze is put out because of an estimated 129 million trees that died in California over the last year from drought and beetle infestation.
"It's fuel just waiting to go up in flames," said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The agencies are planning more aggressive use of so-called prescribed burns, when fire prevention experts identify areas with bone dry "surface fuels" and send in crews to burn it or clear it away using chain saws and heavy equipment.
The state since July 1 has burned 13 square miles (37 square kilometers) of surface fuels such as dry needles, leaves and bark that accumulated over the years and can easily ignite, turning forests into powder kegs, Berlant said. That's more than double the amount cleared three years ago.
The goal for 2018 is to burn at least 31 square miles (80 square kilometers) and for the clearing crews to clean up another 31 square miles. To protect population centers, state and local authorities are also increasing inspections to make sure residential and commercial property owners are maintaining cleared spaces required by law between their properties and forestland.
But the 62 square miles (160 square kilometers) that would be cleared is far smaller than the 1,560 square miles (4,040 kilometers) of land that have been burned by California's wildfires so far this year.
The fire prevention measures will save money in the long run when compared to the huge costs of fighting fires — especially those near communities because so many aircraft and firefighters are rushed in to protect property and lives. The cost over just 11 days to fight the largest wildfire in the Los Angeles-area this month reached $74.7 million on Thursday and was still going up.
Mike De Lasaux, a forester with the University of California's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the state ideally would burn hundreds of square miles of land with surface fuels annually, but he praised any efforts to reduce dangerously overgrown forests. The current plan moved forward following a recent agreement between state and federal agencies along with environmental, logging and recreational interests.
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De Lasaux estimated the risk of the controlled burns running wild and burning homes at less than 2 percent.
But some have turned catastrophic, including a 2000 fire set by U.S. Park Service officials in New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument. High winds whipped the blaze and flames raced through the community of Los Alamos — home to Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear facility and the birthplace of the atomic bomb. More than 400 families lost their homes.
A 2012 burn set by the Colorado State Forest Service southwest of Denver ignited a 6-square-mile (16-square kilometer) wildfire that killed three people and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes. Colorado suspended prescribed burns by state agencies for five years and the ban was lifted in October.
Opponents of the burns by authorities contend the fires release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, put lives and property at risk and kill wildlife and old trees that may never grow back. They also question their efficiency because the wildfires are on the rise even though controlled burns have increased.
"Well it's been policy for decades and we still have catastrophic fires worse than ever," said Arthur Firstenberg, a member of the New Mexico-based anti-controlled burn group Once A Forest.
De Lasaux counters that controlled fires produce significantly less smoke than wildfires like the one currently burning in California's heavily populated Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, "destroying all growth in its path" and prompting warnings about unhealthy air.
California officials only send out crews to conducted controlled burns when conditions are considered safe so that fires won't go out of control, Berlant. That means weather conditions with cooler temperatures, high humidity and calm winds, he said.
"Any time there's cooler temperatures we try to get our crews out there," he said. "What we get is a low-intensity fire that's not gonna burn everything in its path — just the grass and ground fuels. It leaves bigger trees safe."
All Things Considered
What's The Leading Cause Of Wildfires In The U.S.? Humans
Wildfires can start when lightning strikes or when someone fails to put out a campfire. New research shows that people start a lot more fires than lightning does — so much so that people are drastically altering wildfire in America.
Fire ecologist Melissa Forder says about 60 percent of fires in national parks are caused by humans: "intentionally set fires, buildings burning and spreading into the forest, smoking, equipment malfunctions and campfires."
But the average for all forests is even higher. The latest research shows that nationwide, humans cause more than 8 in 10 — 84 percent.
"We are playing a really substantial role in shifting fire around," says fire ecologist Jennifer Balch at the University of Colorado. Balch looked at the big picture, going through records of 1.5 million wildfires over a 21-year period. She says people are starting fires where and when nature normally doesn't — at times when forests are often too wet to burn easily or at places and times when lightning isn't common.
As a result, Balch says, not only are people causing the vast majority of wildfires, they're also extending the normal fire season around the country by three months.
"I think acknowledging that fact is really important," she says, "particularly right now when we have evidence that climate is changing, and climate is warming, and that fires are increasing in size and the fire season is increasing."
You can see evidence of that along Skyline Drive in Virginia. The view offers an Appalachian panorama — rolling mountains carpeted in deep oak and pine forests. But it's not all green, as Forder points out from the side of the highway at Two-Mile Run Overlook at Shenandoah National Park. Right below stands a grove of blackened trees; a few patches of green needles on surviving pines are the only green.
"We can see where it started," she says. "That's Rocky Mount right there." The mountain is the namesake for the Rocky Mount fire, which burned more than 10,000 acres last year.
The park's fire manager, Jeff Koenig, ran the firefighting teams that spent almost two weeks stopping it.
"We were probably 10-plus days without rain" before the fire, he says, "so you know it was expected. It was that time of year when you can expect fire activity."
It was April, and spring and fall are when forests in the east usually burn, explains Forder, who also is with the National Park Service. "To have a fire," she says, "you need the fuel, which is available each spring and fall with the leaf litter, which is constantly here, and the ignition source, and then weather conditions that would allow the fire to burn."
That ignition source at Rocky Mount is thought to have been people. There was no lightning at the time; lightning fires happen more during summer storms.
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Balch says there is a solution: Ironically, it means starting more fires.
Prescribed fires are intentionally lit — they burn off leaf litter and underbrush that would otherwise fuel bigger wildfires. Controlled fires also help germinate the seeds of many tree species. But people don't like them nearby; they're smoky and sometime get loose. "Now the question is, can we live with the amount of prescribed fires that we need in ecosystems?" she says. "Can we live with the smoke that comes off those fires?"
The research, she says, suggests that the alternative is a year-round season of bigger, more damaging fires.