World News – US – Why California’s 4 Million Acres Burned Isn’t All Bad News


Can we find any good in what many call the worst wildfire disaster in state history?

A general store leveled by the brook fire can be seen in this September 2020 file photo taken east of Fresno, Calif.

A forest house community lies in ruins along Auberry Road near Shaver Lake, Calif. after the creek fire on September 8, 2020

Few remains of a house razed to the ground by the fire at the Lightning CZU complex in August 2020 near Boulder Creek, California

Few remains of a house razed to the ground by the fire at the Lightning CZU complex in August 2020 near Boulder Creek, California

Thirty-one people have died in forest fires in California this year As many as 3,000 may have died breathing air contaminated with wood smoke

The flames destroyed over 9,000 buildings, many of which were homes, but also restaurants, businesses and vineyards Countless wild animals were burned alive after being smoked out of their burrows

Tree loss runs into millions In total, some 8,500 fires have burned a land mass the size of Connecticut The August complex fire covered over a million acres alone

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But is there a glimmer of hope in this unprecedented destruction? Can we find any good in what many call the worst wildfire disaster in state history?

For better or for worse, fire has always shaped the Californian landscape, but its effects have never been felt as frequently or as intensely as in recent years

“The climate is clearly warming up, we know that, but it changes the rules of the game, it doesn’t really affect a single event,” says US Hugh Safford, Regional Forest Service ecologist “And that’s a very important trend – we know this leads to drier summers, drier fire seasons and drier fuels – this is a no-brainer, and we need to manage this at a societal level But when you look at these fires in the Coast Ranges, probably the biggest factor behind much of what we see is probably the absolute lack of indigenous cultural burns in the landscape. »

Thousands of years before Americans of European descent brought their version of Christian civilization to the land, native tribes from the central valley to the coast used fire as a tool

Safford explained that the tribes burned surface fuels to free up space for security, hunting and farming – « because they wanted to promote acorn cultivation, you name it »

There are almost no Native American controlled burns on the coast today, as hardly any Native Americans exist on the coast yet.Volunteer militias and politically funded mercenaries massacred the native population and stolen land after gold rush Tens of thousands have died in what UCLA professor and author Benjamin Madley calls « an American genocide »

For newcomers, fire was the enemy, something to fear and extinguish at all costs.This mindset is at the origin of the fire suppression policy that prevailed for a century in American forests

Few remains of a house razed to the ground by the fire at the Lightning CZU complex in August 2020 near Boulder Creek, California

Forest managers admit the removal policy was an ecological mistake, but you can’t erase 100 years of surface fuel accumulation by decree It takes money and resources – money and resources that the US Ironically, the Forest Service continues to spend on fire suppression

“The nation made a major transition from total fire suppression to what we call fire management around the turn of the 1970s,” Safford says “And even so, 50 years later, we continue to extinguish almost all ignitions in almost all conditions So this policy got us to where we are now, especially in landscapes dominated by pine trees and mixed conifers, as these are the landscapes in which fire suppression has had this major impact of the increase in fuels and their transformation into jungles »

We asked Safford what could be done about the decades-long build-up of combustible material, living and dead, in the forests and what effect it had on this record-breaking fire season

The problem, he says, is that smaller, shade-tolerant conifers like white fir, Douglas-fir, and frankincense cedar – trees less than 30 inches in diameter – aren’t worth big. – something, although he notes that cedar can be used to make pencils

Prescribed burns can remove small trees, as well as brush and undead, but doing this safely requires some level of cutting and fuel reduction before the burns as well as weather conditions. optimal

“The big issues in forest management – we really don’t need a lot more science, we don’t need a lot more tools in terms of tools – what we need, c ‘is a socio, political and economic atmosphere that takes this problem seriously and allows us to close the circle to turn this currently almost worthless material into something, ”Safford says

He brings up the example of Sweden, where cities of 100,000 people operate completely without burning high-efficiency biomass.The technology exists in the United States, but it is economically unfeasible, as fuel costs are so low and because of competition from wind and solar power

« At least in mid-altitude coniferous forests, one of the only real answers is to let naturally-lit fires burn more often under the right conditions, » says Safford, who quickly adds that this type of management cannot occur in areas with high or dispersed housing density

« When we analyze the fires from those huge years of fire – I’m not saying people dying and houses being burned down aren’t a disaster – but a lot of these really big fires don’t usually happen in heavily populated areas, ”he says“ They usually happen in the wilderness When we come back next year to analyze them, we’re like, ‘Hey, look at that’ Mostly low severity, lots of moderate severity, and we are not at all dismayed by the ecological results « 

Safford reports on SCU Lightning Complex Fire, the third largest fire in California history, which blackened hundreds of thousands of acres in East Bay and South Bay in August

« This fire burned pretty hot near San Jose, but once you get a little east, [it] doesn’t look that bad It’s just kind of an underburn giant, ”he says.“ A huge estate, but the classic sort of thing Native Americans would have achieved hundreds of years ago – not at this scale, nor at this course – but the results aren’t necessarily worrying

« We have to reserve our judgment on how disastrous these things are ecologically, because what we tend to find is that the longer the fires last, depending on the landscape, the more likely it is that a lot of results are actually the kind of things we wish we could do in a management context « 

The exception is an overheated fire like the Creek Fire or the SQF Complex Fire, which is currently burning in the Sierra, where 150 million trees died from 2012 to 2016 Normally fire-tolerant conifers like tall pines beetle and sugar pines could not survive the double whammy of drought and bark beetle infestation The highly flammable carcasses added a thousand tonnes of material per acre to an already fuel-rich landscape

« So I think you might have the possibility of an ecosystem-like transformation – where you just cook off the ground, you burn it so hot, and you have big plots where there isn’t much. to do source of seeds, ”says Safford

Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences William John Bond of the University of Cape Town wrote in « Encyclopedia of Biodiversity » in 2013 that severe crown fires in forests can destroy massive stands He notes that the exclusion of fires in national parks, such as the giant redwood forests of California, has led to an increase in the number of saplings that act as scale fuels allowing surface fires to climb into them. awnings and becoming crown fires with extremely harmful consequences

The Legacy of Fire Suppression Isn’t All Bad In the chaparral landscape of Southern California, most of the forest fires of the past century were started by humans When blown by the winds fall of Santa Ana, many have turned into severe crown fires

UCLA professor and researcher JE Keeley notes in « Encyclopedia of Ecology » (2008), « Without fire suppression activities, these landscapes would likely have had fire frequencies well above natural and sustainable levels. »

A firefighter fights the creek fire as it threatens homes in the Cascadel Woods neighborhood of Madera County, Calif. in September 2020

President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed California for its wildfires, claiming that the state has mismanaged its forests In fact, most of the worst wildfires in the state have been on land federal More than half of the 33 million acres of forest in California (57%) is on US land compared to just 3% state-owned The rest is owned by individuals, businesses and Native American groups

Referring to California at an August rally in Pennsylvania, the president said, « You have to clean up your floors, you have to clean up your forests – many, many years ago of leaves and broken trees and they’re like, like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up « He’s absolutely right – the fuels that have built up in the forests need to be removed

What he does not mention is that in California a much greater share of this responsibility lies with the federal government than with the state

It is not enough, however, to simply remove dead and dying material from forests In a 2018 BioScience report on tree mortality and forest fires that he wrote with Safford and other scientists, Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, wrote that forest managers need to make forests « green » – more resilient to disturbance – by proactively addressing them to reduce their density before wildfires, droughts and bark beetle epidemics

But, he notes, the Forest Service spends more than half of its budget on forest fire suppression, leaving little money for proactive treatments that could strengthen and protect forests.

« The most disturbing projection is how a large load of large-scale woodfuels in the decades to come may contribute to dangerous mass fires beyond the predictive capacity of current fire models. can generate their own wind and weather conditions « 

Incinerating woodland damaged by bark beetles in the Sierra National Forest in September, the stream fire spawned two firenados between 100 and 125 mph and sent a cloud of pyrocumulonimbus amounting to 55,000 feet in the air

Journalist Mike Moffitt has been writing and editing articles for newspapers and news websites for over 25 years Prior to joining the SFGate team, he worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette He covers current affairs, politics, science, sports, the outdoors and history of the Bay Area

California, Wildfire

World News – US – Why California’s 4 Million Acres Burned Not All Bad News


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