More fires mean less funds for local USDA Forest Service projects
By: Randy Moore, Regional Forester, Pacific Southwest Region, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service
Last year, more than 1,500 wildfires burned over 640,000 acres on National Forest System lands in California, including the Thomas Fire, the largest fire in California's recorded history. The surrounding communities are still dealing with damage from debris flows caused by a charred and barren landscape that no longer has the protection of trees, grass and other vegetation. We see and empathize with those affected, and are working to reduce the potential for future loss by performing hazardous fuel reduction treatments which include thinning overstocked forests and prescribed burning.
The Forest Service is increasingly challenged to provide the personnel and management needed to maintain these services; infrastructure, such as roads, trails and campgrounds; and the health and resiliency of our public forests. The Pacific Southwest Region spent in excess of $500 million preventing or suppressing wildfires over the past year. While nationally, Forest Service suppression costs exceeded $2.4 billion last year, more than ever before. Fire alone accounted for 57 percent of the agency's budget in 2017, up from just 16 percent in 1995. At this rate, suppression costs will take up 67 percent of the Forest Service's budget by 2021.
Currently, 10 million acres of National Forest System lands in California are at moderate to high risk from insects, disease or fire. The science, data and monitoring shows that hazardous fuel treatments positively affect fire behavior and lowers the catastrophic risk of fire damage. Essentially, the more acres we treat, the healthier our forests become, contributing to safer and more resilient communities. In 2017 alone, we performed fuels reduction treatments on over 310,000 acres of Forest Service lands across the state, but there is more to be done.
Funding for suppression efforts performed by the Forest Service on National Forest System lands as well as those under other ownerships, comes from the agency's overall budget which means less money for other Forest Service programs and services. The Forest Service is the only federal agency that is required to fund its entire emergency management program through its regular appropriations. About a third of the Forest Service's total spending on fire goes toward 1 to 2 percent of the fires it fights. Megafires, like the Thomas Fire, are national disasters. It would make sense to deal with them as such: through a separate national emergency fund to stop the drain on the funding for the work we care most about. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and the Forest Service deeply appreciate the ongoing work of Congress to pass new legislation to reform the way wildfire suppression is funded, supporting our efforts to meet the many different needs of the communities we serve, for the benefit of generations to come.
The recent opinion piece by regional forester Randy Moore contained some misleading ideas.
Moore asserts â€œThe science, data, and monitoring show that hazardous fuel treatments positively affect fire behavior and lowers the catastrophic risk of fire damage. Essentially, the more acres we treat, the healthier our forests become, contributing to safer and more resilient communities.â€
There are many misleading ideas contained in his statement. The first is that fuel treatments lower the risk of fire damage. They only work occasionally, and only under less than extreme fire weather conditions.
However, many studies have shown that all large wildfires such as the Thomas Fire by Ventura or the Rim Fire by Yosemite are driven by climate/weather, not fuels. Extensive drought, low humidity, high temperatures and wind create conditions where it is impossible to stop a wildfire.
The very fires people fear and wish to contain are those that do not respond to fuel treatments.
I recently visited the Thomas Fire to view the aftermath, and the only firebreak that stopped the Thomas Fire was the Pacific Ocean.
The second problem with Moore's assertion is that the probability of a large high severity fire occurring in any specific place is small. Thus, studies also show that most fuel treatments will never encounter a wildfire so are a waste of time and money.
The third problem with Moore's assertion is that studies also demonstrate that dead trees are less likely to burn than live trees under "extreme fire weather." That's because it's fine fuels that burn during a wildfireâ€”things like needles, cones and small branches. And conifers also contain flammable resins in their needles, and branches, so live green trees are more likely to burn during a wildfire than dead trees.
The fourth problem with Moore's assertion that logging will create â€œhealthierâ€ forests. Again, this demonstrates Mr. Moore's Industrial Forestry bias. Many studies have demonstrated that logging/thinning â€œsanitizes and impoverishesâ€ forest ecosystems. Natural processes like bark beetles, drought, and wildfire contribute to the episodic input of dead trees and down wood which are critical to healthy ecosystems.
Indeed, if Mr. Moore could see the forest through the trees, he would learn that 2/3 of all wildlife species depend on dead trees at some point in their lives. And it's not just cavity-nesting birds like woodpeckers. It's everything from frogs and salamanders to bears to lichens and fungi. The snag forests resulting from large wildfires contain the second highest biodiversity in our forests after old-growth stands.
Another important point that Mr. Moore neglects to mention is that forests are critical in storing carbon and study after study has shown that logging/thinning removes more carbon than even wildfires. Given that climate change is one of the factors contributing to California's drought, the most valuable aspect of our public forests is carbon storage, not wood production or anything else.
Finally, the only proven way to safeguard communities is not by logging the forest or increasing â€œfuel treatmentsâ€ it is by reducing the flammability of homes and buildings. Just as you cannot predict where an earthquake will occur, but you can reinforce buildings and have emergency plans in the events of a quake, communities must fire-proof their homes, and adopt fire emergency contingency plans.
It is not surprising that Regional Forester Moore promotes loggingâ€”the Forest Service has long been a handmaiden of the timber industry. If you don't want to be a fire victim, start fire-proofing your town. Any other â€œsolutionâ€ like fuel treatments is mere snake oil.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books including two on wildfire, plus chapters on fire ecology for more than a dozen other books. 541-255-6039. He formerly worked for the Forest Service and currently resides in Bend, OR.