USA — The forests are both a victim of climate change and part of the solution.
California’s 2008 wildfires cost hundreds of millions – maybe even billions – of taxpayer dollars to fight, claimed more than a dozen firefighters’ lives, destroyed hundreds of homes, blanketed much of Northern California with a toxic cloud of smoke, and left our scenic hillsides blackened and dozer-scarred.
And while the June lightning storm that started it all was unusual, the fire trends in California are clear – and the forecast is grim.
The past decade has brought one record-breaking fire season after another in the state, and a warming climate is likely to make the situation worse. Higher temperatures and earlier snowmelts mean longer, drier fire seasons, and some scientists predict that blaze-prone Northern California will be among the regions in the United States seeing the most dramatic increase in wildfires. Just our luck.
In a vicious circle, wildfires themselves pump enormous loads of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
But that cycle can be reversed. We can reduce the size and severity of fires. And as California – soon to be joined by the incoming Democratic presidential administration – musters to fight global warming, our forests, properly managed, can be a vital weapon.
If we thin unnaturally overgrown forests, we can systematically reduce the risk of catastrophic, stand-replacing blazes. The rate of those severe fires in the Sierra Nevada has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, according to a study released last month, and the trend is surely similar in the Cascades and Klamaths.
That would have a direct benefit for neighbors’ lungs in the short run and the climate in the long run. Thriving trees are one of the few tools we have to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. If they go up in smoke, they do little good.
On the other hand, if we efficiently burn the wood waste from thinning in a biomass power plant – as Wheelabrator, Burney Mountain Power, Roseburg Forest Products and others have done for years – we’ve turned a potential pollutant into a source of renewable power that can replace fossil fuels. No, biomass couldn’t produce enough juice to run the bright lights of Los Angeles and the server farms of Silicon Valley, but every watt helps.
Such a drive would not only turn a hazard into an asset, but also reduce the astonishing cost of fighting wildfires in California. Even if the work couldn’t pay for itself through timber and electricity – and it probably could – sensible prevention of predictable disasters must be a money-saver in the long run.
Some environmentalists argue that human hands on the forest are the problem, and that the best thing we could do is back off and let nature take care of itself. In some cases, that makes sense. But they also need to recognize that in emergencies, all our careful planning and environmental niceties go out the window. Bulldozers will push fire lines wherever incident commanders think they’re needed, even through normally protected land. Destructive emergency burnouts, which drew so many complaints this summer, can be the only option crews see in severe conditions.
What’s more, the fuel buildup in our forests is itself the product of past decades’ overzealous firefighting. We do need to return to balance, but that doesn’t mean we should walk away and ignore a problem we created.
Instead, we need to embrace solutions, and we need to get to work.