Repeat of Cow Mountain fire would be worse than 1982

Repeat of Cow Mountain fire would be worse than 1982

1 July 2008

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USA — Now that the wildfires are dying down, the inevitable cry will go out about how we should prevent disastrous fires in the future.

Make no mistake about it, wildfires are part of living in Lake County. The recent 15,000-acre Walker Fire is a good example that much of Lake County is a tinderbox waiting to catch fire. It cost more than $3 million to fight that fire whereas just a fraction of that could have prevented it through control burning.

Actually, the Walker Fire will help wildlife by burning old brush and creating new growth. Since just about all wildfires occur on either U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, much of the public feels that these government agencies are responsible for preventing wildfires.

While lightning causes some fires, humans start most of them. For example, many fires start along roads and highways because people toss lighted cigarettes out their car windows.

In fact, many of today’s new cars aren’t even equipped with ashtrays. On a recent walk along Martin Street and Riggs Road (outside of Lakeport), I counted more than 50 discarded cigarette butts in a stretch of three miles, and this was through very dry country. Any of these butts could have started a major fire.

Lake County has endured several major wildfires in the past 25 years. The largest was back in 1996 when the Forks Fire burned more than 83,000 acres. The Forks Fire began outside of Upper Lake and burned all the way to Indian Valley Reservoir. Luckily no homes were destroyed but for a time it was feared the fire would swing toward Clear Lake and burn Nice and Lucerne.

The other major fire occurred in 1982 when the massive Cow Mountain fire, which began just south of Ukiah, burned all the way to the outskirts of Lakeport. That fire destroyed a number of buildings in Scotts Valley.

Cow Mountain is once again 50,000 acres of dry brush and it’s not a question of if it will burn, only when. Since the 1982 fire there have been a number of homes built in the hills that border Cow Mountain. A fire would probably destroy many of these homes and could even cost lives. The answer to this dilemma is simple.

Do control burning.

Every year the government agencies talk about control burning on Cow Mountain but very little is ever done and the brush, and the danger, keeps growing.

There is no question that much of the county needs to be controlled burned to prevent major wildfires. We often hear the term “control burning” but a lot of people don’t know what it entails. BLM, the California Division Of Forestry (CDF) and the U.S. Forest Service conduct almost all of the control burning in the state.

The purpose of control burning is to burn old brush and create new habitat for wildlife and to prevent wildfires by creating burn corridors that will contain a wildfire. Most of the control burns takes place during the fall and winter months when the chance of the fire spreading is minimal.

The actual control burning is a simple affair. The managers of the forest lay out an area to be burned and a helicopter flies over the area. The helicopter is rigged with a barrel containing a flammable jelly-like substance suspended by a cable. The jelly is set afire and the helicopter drags the barrel over the brush, setting it afire. Most control burns are laid out in a mosaic pattern, leaving cover for wildlife.

The cost to control burn is a pittance in comparison to cost of fighting a wildfire.

Why hasn’t control burning been done to protect the residences in the county and provide habitat for wildlife? The answer is simple. The government agencies responsible for control burning can’t agree on when or even how to do it. Just the process of getting an agreement on when to burn is mind-boggling. First there has to be permission from Air Quality Control because of the smog the control burn will cause. Then funding has to obtained to conduct the burn. Whereas money can always be found to put out a wildfire, there is often little available to do control burning. Coordinating the burn with CDF also must be accomplished. There is also the fear of liability if the control burn turns into a wildfire. All this results in a very small window when control burning can be done.

The only certainty is if control burning isn’t done, then nature will do it for us, and at a much greater cost. It’s the old story of pay now or pay much more later.

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