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Wildfire control policy: Thinning and controlled burns

Wildfire control policy: Thinning and controlled burns

The solutions are not simple

In light of the many destructive fires still burning in California, it might seem like a no-brainer that fires such as these could be made less severe by a more effective and frequent use of controlled burns and selective thinning of the forest and brush. But although that idea appears to be basically correct, the situation isn’t so simple, nor is it so easy to achieve these burns.

California’s fire chief has been willing to increase the number of planned burns:

“Putting prescribed fire back out on the landscape at a pace and scale to get real work done and to actually make a difference is a high priority,” says Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott. “It really is, and it’s going to take a lot of effort.”

In a February report, the watchdog Little Hoover Commission concluded that the way California landowners have collectively managed forests is an “unprecedented catastrophe.” In May, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order to improve forest management, and with it, a dramatic change.

…Pimlott says that Cal Fire intends to triple the amount of prescribed fire on lands the state controls.

“We can prevent these large catastrophic fires or at least reduce the intensity when fires do occur,” he says. “So a little bit of smoke now and a little bit of inconvenience now is well worth offsetting these large damaging fires.”

There are obstacles to accomplishing this, however. It is not that easy to control a burn while at the same time making sure it is effective:

Even with approval, federal wildland managers waited months for the right weather and environmental conditions here. Hinckley says those criteria range from wind speed and temperature, to how much water is in the soil…

Thick vegetation in the understory is a limiting factor, too. Hinckley says her crews often need to chop and flatten vegetation to make safe conditions for burning.

Even when all of the stars align, Hinckley says she might not have warm bodies for the job. That happened last fall when fires up and down the state kept fire crews hamstrung…

Even when the permit is done and the weather is right and crews are available, the air might already be too polluted to add more smoke to the mix…

“We have to protect public health; that’s our mandate,” says Dar Mims, a meteorologist with the California Air Resources Board. “But we also recognize that we need burning in the forest, and a lot of those trade-offs have to happen in real time”…

The public gets upset when there are a lot of burn days, but there needs to be more education about why it’s important to do it anyway, plus the fact that there’s less air pollution from a controlled burn than from a wildfire.

There’s much more at the link, and I strongly suggest you read it.

There are dissenting opinions, however, about the value of thinning. Here’s one of them; the basic thrust of that article, however, is that thinning (another supposed forest-control strategy) is not particularly effective in reducing the severity of major forest fires out West. Suffice to say that many disagree.

Here’s what that same article has to say about controlled burning:

No one wants to be the person who signed off on a prescribed burn and then had it get away and burn homes to the ground. However, when conditions are good for controlling a blaze, they are usually not good for fire spread.

There has been a movement in Congress to allow more thinning and less interference from environmental groups:

Members of the Western Caucus have proposed legislation to dramatically change the way forests are managed. If passed, this bill would give power back to local authorities and allow for more aggressive forest thinning without subjecting them to the most onerous of environmental reviews.

While state and federal governments can take measures to enhance forest and wilderness management, private management can also get involved to improve conditions.

One idea is to adopt a policy popularized by the school choice movement: create charter forests that are publicly owned, but privately managed. This would allow forest management to move away from top-down, bureaucratic control to a decentralized and varied system that may better conform with local realities.

Maybe the current fires will jump-start the implementation of better solutions. Knowing how bureaucracies work, however (and the extreme leftward tilt of the California state government and population), one shouldn’t bet on it. There’s also the specter of lawsuits like one in Oakland, California, where a very small group of homeowners managed (against the wishes of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, who wanted even more trees cut than proposed) to halt the cutting of eucalyptus trees on the site of a catastrophic fire decades earlier (see also this).

But maybe there’s reason for hope. For example, this article that appeared in the very leftist Mother Jones last year advocates an increase in controlled burns:

Addressing the problem will require a revolution in land management and in people’s relationship with fire — and there are signs both may be beginning.

As a child in Southern California, Berleman was deeply afraid of wildfire. But at community college, she learned that Native Americans used fire for thousands of years to manage forests and grasslands and protect their villages. Tribes regularly burned California’s oak woodlands, for instance, to remove underbrush and fight pests. It helped them spot prey more easily, keep weevils out of the acorns they gathered for food, and safeguard their homes from wildfire. In 2009, Berleman transferred to the University of California, Berkeley to study fire ecology. There, she worked on her first prescribed burn. “I instantly fell in love with the ability to use fire in a positive way to accomplish objectives,” she says. She trained as a firefighter so she could put fire to use as a land-management tool.

That entire article is worth reading because it indicates a number of ways in which the left—which, after all, is in the driver’s seat in California—could see its way towards supporting a much more aggressive use of controlled burns. One form of appeal might be to point out that Native Americans did it. Another piece of useful knowledge in appealing to the left would be that the major incredibly hot and uncontrolled wildfires of late are the ones that release a lot of carbon. Controlled burns are very different, and they often preserve the trees themselves, so their carbon footprint is not so onerous, and that knowledge should appeal to those concerned about global warming.

The article agrees that although thinning has some benefits, controlled burns are a more effective way to go:

North says thinning is not a solution for much of the Sierra Nevada. Only 28 percent of the landscape can be mechanically thinned, he calculated; the rest is too steep or remote…

Official Forest Service policy has acknowledged this. The 2014 interagency National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy calls for expanding the use of prescribed burns and letting more wildfires burn. “It’s just not being followed; that’s the real problem,” North says. “Everyone knows what we’ve got to do. But it’s not being done.”

Why isn’t more being done? A big role is played by increased house-building in areas near or even in forests, and the fear of lawsuits from homeowners if planned fires get out of control and do damage to human dwellings. Even some conservationists are on board with controlled burns:

Craig Thomas, conservation director of Sierra Forest Legacy, has been calling for more natural and prescribed fire in the Sierra for two decades. He believes that after the Rim, Rough and King fires, the public and policymakers better understand the threat of unnaturally overgrown forests.

That was written before the current fires, and so I imagine that at this point the public understands the problem even better. The article goes on to say that since 2015 the area of California in which fires are allowed to burn without stopping them has increased, and the number of controlled burns has increased as well. It seems that it would be a good thing if the recent horrific fires in both northern and southern California motivated residents of the state to accept more of the inconvenience and expense of controlled burns, in order to offset the far more catastrophic effects of major and uncontrolled forest conflagrations that spread to population centers.

[Neo is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at the new neo.]


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More wasn’t being done before now because the wacko environmental lobby makes it impossible to do things as simple as cut trees back from power lines, never mind doing controlled burns.

Now that celebrity homes are getting burned down maybe something will actually change.

One solution is simple. Start holding PG&E executives individually criminally responsible for causing disasters. This is the second wildfire this year they directly caused. In this case, they mulled over turning the high-tension wires that cross the Feather River off dud to the high winds and high fire danger due to the dry vegetation. But they chose not to, and the fire units that responded when the fire was first reported all relayed that they could seed downed electric lines. Now twenty three people are dead and whole towns have been obliterated, on top of billions of dollars worth of destruction throughout the whole area (full disclosure: along with my brothers and sister we jointly own a cabin in the Plumas National Forest not far from where PG&E started the fire).

They started a major fire earlier this year because they didn’t trim trees back away from their powerlines, an act of criminal negligence as far as I’m concerned. It’s a well known danger; in fact the USFS and CALFIRE, among other contributors, had signed off on a report pointing exactly that out to the utility. Still, PG&E didn’t follow through.

After the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion that killed eight people and injured dozens, certainly over a hundred, more eventually a federal jury found the company criminally responsible for the explosion. Their testing procedures were so inadequate that company execs lied to federal investigators about them. Plus they had illegally diverted $100M from their safety operations fund to executive compensation and bonuses.

I’m somewhat confused; how can you find a company guilty of over two dozen criminal counts of violating federal utility safety standards and no one goes to prison. If it had been a private company someone would have.

    Arminius in reply to Arminius. | November 13, 2018 at 10:18 am

    It’s amusing that someone voted me down. I suppose someone is just fine with a public utility killing people through incompetence and greed. PG&E decided it was better to keep those transmission wires live and now 23 people are dead, untold hundreds are in burn wards, and there are billions of dollars in damage.

    And someone is just fine with that.

    Again, it reminds me of the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion in that their focus is on their bottom line rather than public safety. I’ve already noted that they illegally (according to the conclusions of the state investigation) diverted $100M from their safety operations fund and instead used it as a slush fund for the top executives to give each other bennies. On the day of the explosion to meet increased demand they just jacked up the pressure through an untested thirty inch gas main. Untested despite being nearly sixty years old at the time. Naturally it exploded, devastating nearly 40 homes and killing 8.

    So poor were their testing and safety procedures they had no clue what the safe pressures were for any of their pipes. Let alone a pipe installed in 1956 that, as it turned out was of unequal internal diameter, had faulty welds that didn’t penetrate all the way through the metal, and had a seam running the full length of the pipe further weakening it. In fact, their procedures were so shoddy they lied to federal investigators and got caught in their lie.

    When it came to the lawsuits at the state level PG&E executives got caught conspiring with executives at the CA Public Utilities Commission attempting to judge shop to find the most sympathetic venues possible. That judge shopping became part of the federal criminal probe. And the result was the company was found guilty of 28 criminal violations of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act. It was fined a few million dollars and was sentenced to community service.

    The senior executives didn’t care about the fines; they just passed that along to their customers. Whom, as the way PG&E so cavalierly demonstrated by starting the Camp fire after considering then brushing off the fire danger, they’re as happy to kill as not. And if you think any of the senior executives who happily authorized all they lying if they didn’t do it themselves did an hour of that community service you’re nuts.

    Someone should have seen an inside of a jail cell (not necessarily referring to the down-voter, but could be as who knows what sites PG&E execs visit). Maybe these clowns wouldn’t have started two major fires this year if that had happened in January of last year when the federal criminal trial concluded.

    But it needs to happen now.

    Arminius in reply to Arminius. | November 13, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    Now the Camp fire death toll is up to 42 and rising. Someone or perhaps a number of someones at PG&E should go to prison for this.

    I hope the idiot who’s been down voting me down votes this. Then we’ll all know it’s someone who is in favor of letting mass murderers walk. Perhaps it’s even a PG&E executive who’s guilty as sin. Perhaps it’s even Hillary Clinton.

      Arminius in reply to Arminius. | November 14, 2018 at 2:00 pm

      Hi, Hillary! Thanks for the down vote, you mass murderer, you.

      I see I have two down votes on one of my earlier comments. I see, Hillary, you’ve been joined by at least one PG&E executive.

Cultists don’t think practically – except its leaders. Even then, they think about money – or sex.

Under torture (like listening to Obama or hillary clinton speeches on an endless loop), Brown would admit the b.s. of ‘global warming’ causing CA’s most recent super-fires. He’d admit the left will do anything to precipitate a crises to exploit. In CA’s case, it’s been water shortages (no water projects have ever been done in CA under democrat leadership – in fact, they’ve actually been hampered), fire, high speed railways to nowhere that are over budget by tens of BILLIONS of dollars, immigration, etc, etc, etc.


2018: The GOPe tried to screw us again, and to an extent, they did.

The state spends 10 times more on electric car subsidies than on dead tree clearing.

As usual when Mr. Trump fires his scattergun, he hits deserving and undeserving targets. The state firefighting agency Cal Fire says it has plenty of water to battle the 16 or so large blazes that have broken out across the state in recent weeks, killing seven people and consuming a half million acres. But every gallon of water used to extinguish fires won’t be available for Californians amid a severe water shortage, which has been exacerbated by wasteful environmental policies.

The Westlands Water District reported last month that pumping restrictions at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that are ostensibly intended to protect smelt and salmon had resulted in 151,000 acre-feet of water—enough to sustain nearly a half million households annually—lost to the Pacific Ocean in June. The state Water Resources Control Board last month proposed additional restrictions on water deliveries.

Full story at link

Oh, BS.

. . . she learned that Native Americans used fire for thousands of years to manage forests and grasslands and protect their villages.

Which we know from those meticulous logbooks, survey maps, and annual reports for which the Indians were universally renowned.

    alaskabob in reply to tom_swift. | November 13, 2018 at 1:09 am

    They did in the New England states. Increased deer and Turkey populations.

    MajorWood in reply to tom_swift. | November 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm

    Actually, they did. Deer rely on smell, humans on vision. Without controlling undergrowth, they’d smell us long before we would see them. Of course, with a Winchester 300 Magnum, smell is no longer a part of the equation.

    And to Ann in LA, goats do eat everything in sight, including Poison Ivy.

I was up in the Santa Rosa fire zone this fall. Went up to look at a foundation that (mostly) survived teh fire and see how much of it could be reused.

In the midst of the desolation, the Oak trees were starting to put out little green buds while everything else around them, (except the redwoods) was burned to the ground.

The redwoods were scorched but surviving. Like many other California plants, the Redwoods need fire to make their seeds germinate. Lots of little Redwoods in the pipeline for next year.

We have a new State Building Code for the Urban Wildlands Interface. It will do some good, but it will only be enforced on new construction, including any rebuilding in the burn zones.

Many homeowners with burned houses won’t have enough insurance coverage to afford to rebuild to current code, which includes residential fire sprinkler systems and a lot of Green and Energy Conservation stuff.

    Ragspierre in reply to erc. | November 12, 2018 at 11:26 pm

    Many…maybe most…insurance will cover the added cost of meeting new codes. It’s a very common provision.

Nothing will STOP wildfires. They are a fact of life and have been since before human beings lived in California. And, they are not just caused by human action. Most wildfires are caused by lightning strikes.

But, humans can do a lot of things which will mitigate the amount of damage, including loss of life, from wild fires.

The first thing is forestry management. This entails clearing undergrowth and dead trees. It does not require controlled burns, if done regularly.

The second thing is the construction of firebreaks. This puts a fuel-less barrier between inhabited areas and forest. This reduces the ability of a fire to travel into developed areas.

The third thing is the restriction of development in forested areas, especially in certain valley areas, where high winds can move fires rapidly.

And, fourth, the increased use of fire retardant materials and design in structures. Many buildings catch fire, not because a line of flame reaches it, but from blowing embers which land on flammable roofing or get into exposed vent areas, usually under the roof. In areas which have high winds [such as hurricane prone areas] structures are made of CBS or poured concrete with flat or hip roofs. In flood prone areas, structures are built on raised ground or on stilts. Similar precautions can be taken in fire prone areas.

All of these simple things were not done in the last few years in California. So, a devastating fire, or fires, was inevitable.

The article – beginning with the title – wants to say there are two sides to the prescribed burn argument. Then the only evidence offered for the con side is that such burns are hard work with an element of danger. Yes, they are that, but that will only seem to be a real reason not to do them if you haven’t been doing them routinely. And you have huge tracts that are public and not managed at all – few roads, no established firebreaks, and buildup of fuel from past mismanagement that makes burning trickier than it need be. (Of course that element also increases the urgency of the burn. It’s a reason to burn, not a reason not to burn!)

Where ignorant urban enviro-wackos don’t make the rules, annual burning (of a third of your tract per year) is a routine ritual. Here in the southeast, we do it not so much to prevent out-of-control wildfires as to manage for pine trees, crops, and wildlife. All benefit from controlled burning. And we don’t have the huge tracts of federal land that aren’t logged (loggers make roads) or closely managed at all (because since everyone owns them, they tend to be managed as if no one owns them). Privatizing those federal lands would quickly solve the wildfire threat.

Even here in the southeast we aren’t entirely immune to the kind of rank stupidity that is so prevalent everywhere these days and has so taken hold of minds on the left coast (both coasts?). For safety considerations (behind an awful lot of silliness) our farm fuel tanks are above ground, and our burning cannot be done at night. Fuel belongs underground because the main safety threat is fire, but the enviro threat of a leaking tank has produced regulations making underground tanks more expensive. And night burning, which used to be the rule, is safer, more thorough and effective, and easier. Cooler, less wind, higher humidity, but a greater threat of smoke obscuring highways. No one wants to sign off on that risk, so all else is ignored.