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Burning Down the House: Should Private Assets be Sacrificed to Protect Public Land?

September 18, 2015
by Glen Martin

Back when mastodons and giant ground sloths still roamed the earth – the late 70s and early 80s – I worked as a wildfire fighter for the U.S. Forest Service, both on hand crews and engine crews. Our training was narrow but relatively deep. Mainly, we were taught to construct fire lines with hand tools and chain saws. Water, when it was available, generally was used to protect the line and firefighters; seldom was it employed to directly extinguish the flames.

Our basic strategy consisted of digging and cutting line around the flanks of the fire, then burning out fuels to the advancing flames with fusees (devices resembling highway flares) or drip torches. In this way, the “head” of the fire could be steered to natural barriers or areas sufficiently devoid of fuels to make a direct attack possible. We received zero training for structure firefighting. The one time I responded to a burning structure was in Trinity County: A vacation cabin was ablaze due to a faulty propane line. Several engines responded. Federal Forest Service engines are smaller and hold far less water than municipal or state engines, but collectively, we mustered a lot of water on the scene. A direct attack could have been possible, but we knew our training for battling such a fire was inadequate. Instead, we dug a line around the cabin so the flames wouldn’t encroach into the surrounding woods, and watched it burn to the ground.

Things are different now. For one thing, wildfires are bigger and more frequent. This is due to drought, climate change, and the sins of past forest managers. In the sixties, seventies and eighties, vast tracts of old growth timber were liquidated in massive clear cuts. These deforested landscapes were replanted as conifer monocrops, resulting in expansive stands of spindly, closely-spaced, second-growth trees that are as flammable as kerosene.

Meanwhile, the goal for wildfire fighters has changed drastically. The emphasis now is on “protecting interface,” which means preventing fires from immolating the homes that have sprouted across the West’s woodlands like morel mushrooms after a rain (back when we had rain). This shift has made fighting wildfires far more expensive, more dangerous for firefighters, and has altered priorities from protecting public forests to protecting private assets. Wildfire fighters now receive training in structure fires, but that has diluted, perhaps even vitiated, their original mission. As Berkeley Environmental Science Professor and Wildfire Researcher Scott Stephens noted, more than half the U.S. Forest Service budget for the current fiscal year is dedicated to fire suppression; in the early 1990s, that figure was about 20 percent. Assuming the trend will continue, which seems certain, firefighting could consume 70 percent of the agency’s budget by the 2020s.

That means there’s less money than ever for restorative work. And this is work that must be done, and soon. Unless we alter the essential characteristics of our coniferous forests, they will quite literally vanish. It’s already happening: Stephens observes that significant portions of California’s forests are shifting from pine and fir to mixed hardwoods or even grasslands, the result of repeated, high-intensity fires and drought. And once our conifers are gone, we’re not getting them back. The change will be permanent.

Even with drought and accelerating climate change, we can still have healthy coniferous forests in the West. But we won’t get them by simply letting them grow — and burn (and burn). Stephens observes we need active management: intensive thinning by both mechanical means and prescriptive fire. This will result in forests with fewer but healthier trees, forests that are largely resistant to any but the most catastrophic fires.

A hundred years ago, disastrous wildfires were rare in California. Forests were characterized by widely spaced, extremely large trees; You could ride through them on horseback, unimpeded. Any fires that did ignite generally crept along. They didn’t have the “fuel ladders” — dead limbs and needles on the ground, brush and ascending foliage higher up — needed to climb into the crowns of the trees and explode into rolling fireballs. Being large, the trees were thick-barked and resistant to fire. Indeed, periodic low-level fires disposed of deadwood, killed destructive insects, and returned nutrients to the soil as ashes. It was a virtuous cycle, assuring healthy, resilient wild lands that depended on fires, but were not destroyed by them.

That changed with the aggressive fire suppression of the Smokey the Bear era and accelerated clear-cut logging. But as Stephens notes, we can revitalize the “dog hair” (as in, thick as the hair on a dog’s back) forests we now have. We can re-create the vibrant, fire-resistant forests of the early 20th century. We know how to do it. We have the tools: chain saws, heavy equipment, and prescriptive fire. It’s not that complicated.

But it will take political will and money. It won’t require a Manhattan Project-style response —but it’ll require one similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps in scope and commitment. We need to put young men and women back into the woods in force, cutting trees and conducting controlled burns. By re-introducing fire into forest ecosystems, we can, paradoxically, protect them from fire. This will entail triage. We’ll have to identify those areas that are most vulnerable to fire (e.g., interface communities). The first projects should be shaded fuel breaks, strips of thinned forests around highways and rural towns and residential developments. Following that, more ambitious projects could proceed on larger tracts.

Who pays? The state and feds must contribute, of course. But local communities, commercial timber companies, and private landowners must also cough up. In particular, the counties and interface residents must participate. So far, they’ve gotten a free ride. County planners have encouraged development in wild-land areas without thought to the implications of wildfire; After all, taxpayers have always picked up fire suppression costs. More suppression costs must be passed on to the counties so they are incentivized to discourage development in our wild lands, and homeowners must pay appropriately heavy premiums if they choose to build in the woods.

Stephens estimates we have about 30 years before it’s too — before our coniferous forests are gone forever, replaced with oak woodlands, brush fields, or grassy savannas. And even then, of course, the wildfires will continue. As we saw with the recent Middletown conflagration, hardwood forests and scrublands can burn just as ferociously as conifers. As long as homes intrude into the wild lands, their continued destruction is assured.

We can continue down the current path of increasing fires and escalating suppression costs, or we can invest in forest restoration. The first course is a death spiral. The second will reduce wildfires, preserve the essential character of our wild lands, provide tens of thousands of jobs to young Americans, yield economic benefits ranging from timber production to recreation, stabilize watersheds, and preserve wildlife diversity. Let’s just hope we do the right thing.

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