Fuel reduction leads to fewer large fires

Fuel reduction leads to fewer large fires

22 July 2008

published by www.lassennews.com

USA — Politicians are fiddling while our forests burn, according to the Lassen County Fire Safe Council’s managing director, Tom Esgate, who shepherds major fuel reduction projects on private land in both Lassen and Modoc counties.

“All the focus is on attacking the symptoms, not on curing the disease. It’s like trying to fight brain cancer with an aspirin.”

Esgate is all for fighting fires, but he would like to see at least an equal emphasis placed on making our forests less vulnerable. “If we can come up with $70 million for fire suppression, we can come up with $70 million for fuel reduction.”

He fumes at Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent announcement to funnel millions of dollars into firefighting efforts in California without making provisions for forest treatment as well.

“He’s giving $70 million for fire suppression resources and zero dollars for prevention activities such as fuel reduction or Fire Safe Council support.

“This continues the state’s MIA (missing in action) pattern when it comes to funding fuel treatments that would reduce fire risk and truly protect our communities, forests and watersheds,” said the fire prevention crusader.

The real solution to catastrophic fires is proper husbandry, according to Esgate, who wants the politicians and the government to be proactive rather than reactive where our forests are concerned. He insists that if the forests were properly treated and maintained, fires would be much less catastrophic, less destructive and much less costly to fight.

“We’ll get a lot more bang for the buck with fuel reduction than we are on fire suppression,” Esgate said, pointing out that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Additionally, the cost of fighting fires is growing exponentially.

Said Esgate, “If we need $70 million for suppression resources this year, five or 10 years from now we’re going to need $500 million. That’s the vicious cycle we’re in, and no one wants to step up and break it.”

Insisting that treatment for fire prevention is taking a back seat to the more glamorous elements of suppression, Esgate said, “Fuel reduction activities that prevent fires just don’t make as good of news as a big, beautiful DC-10 dropping colorful retardant on a massive fire. The cameras are always rolling when the president or the governor visit fire camps, but the leaders almost never visit a real fuel reduction project. I have yet to see a fleet of TV satellite feed trucks show up at one of our projects.”

Esgate compared the government’s present fixation with firefighting to its preoccupation with building a war machine after the Second World War, something President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the Kennedy administration about, saying, “Watch out for the military/industrial complex.”

“We may be getting there with fire when the only plan California can come up with is to throw more money into suppression resources,” said Esgate, sounding a similar warning to Eisenhower’s. “If we are ever going to get a handle on this we’re going to have to have equal priorities. Funding for fuel reduction activities that is at least equal to suppression costs would be a good start.”

Esgate pointed to the significant track record of the Lassen County Fire Safe Council, which will treat well more than 5,000 acres of private, forested land this year, “which are probably more acres than the local Forest Service and BLM offices combined.” This, he believes, is a sensible model of forest management.

The present condition of our forests, brought about by a thoughtless suppression-at-all-costs policy and by unenlightened concepts of what constitutes a ‘healthy’ forest, has brought them to the brink of destruction, according to Esgate.

“Before European settlement, we had beautiful forests of large trees and open-crown stands out here on the east side. The fire, when it started, poked around underneath them, just doing its normal thing. Now, fire takes out the whole forest, because of poor management policies.”

Forests are left largely untouched under present management policies unless a fire breaks out, at which time every possible resource is thrown at putting down the fire, said Esgate, explaining that thus unthinned by either natural fires or the hand of man, the forests have become tinderboxes — ready to burn at the slightest provocation.

“One of the classic definitions of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” said Esgate. “This certainly applies to California’s singular focus on suppression. After all, it is a century of fire suppression, often for very good reasons, that got us into this mess. We do need more suppression resources, especially since the federal government has gutted the federal fire service, mothballed hundreds of engines due to staffing cuts and sold off a lot of dozers that were used to fight fires.

“But to continue the state’s singular focus on suppression only ensures that hazardous fuel loads will pile up and fire will become even more catastrophic. We’ll never have enough resources to contain every fire created by a large dry lightning.

“Lightning strikes, which start these fires, are a natural and common phenomenon. We cannot control it. Fires will start. The condition of the forests, then, becomes the deciding factor,” he said, explaining.

“If they are untreated, overburdened with readily combustible wood fuels in the form of dead and dying trees as well as densely packed tree growth, they are prime for catastrophic burns. The result is, we keep having bigger and bigger catastrophic fires.”

Esgate noted when a forest burns, the lost trees are replaced by fast growing brush. In effect, “we’re converting our forests to brush,” he said, adding that this brush burns readily. “It’s going to burn more often and hotter than what a healthy forest would do … And in the process, we’re losing our watersheds, let alone our homes, communities and wildlife habitat.”

Logging isn’t the answer either, insists Esgate. “It’s not as simple as putting the loggers to work, logging wood so the forest can pay for itself. Most of the materials that need to be removed are not saw logs.

“If we’re really serious about restoring the forests, we’ve got to leave almost every large tree. We don’t have many large trees left. We have to remove the smaller, unprofitable trees, as well as the dead and dying trees. You just can’t go out there and take big trees and say that we’re thinning the forest.”

Esgate and the Fire Safe Council are faced with another problem.

“When these fires break out, they start robbing our fuel reduction resources off our jobs to fight fires,” said Esgate, who refused to allow his contractors, treating forested land locally, to go to fight fires instead.

“Somebody’s got to get out ahead of these fires by getting this fuel reduction work done.”

He said the council will lose the hard won grant money if the work is not done “in a timely fashion,” saying, “Not only would the work not get done, we would lose the funds to do the work. We have to get the work done or return the money. And when you return the money, it doesn’t get reapplied to other fuel projects in our area. It just goes back into the black hole in Washington D.C. It just disappears.”

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