USA — A year after wildfire killed 13 people and blackened hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland – costing nearly $170 million to fight – the north state’s woods stand primed to burn again.
The conflagration that ripped through the region last summer caused weeks of evacuations and disrupted thousands of lives. North state residents inhaled brown air for months, and many say they’re still wheezing.
Yet the urgency created by that disaster has generated little tangible action on the part of government administrators and politicians, a monthslong Record Searchlight investigation has shown. And while historical differences of opinion often are used to explain the lack of action, several potential areas for consensus have emerged. These include:
Thinning, and even some logging, in woods close to homes and other developments.
Increasing and protecting the funds available to government agencies for wildfire prevention.
Turning flammable materials in the forest into fuels for wood-burning power plants.
Climate scientists and foresters warn of ever-growing fire seasons bringing skies filled with hazy, lung-choking air. Throughout the West, wildland fire is expected to burn two to three times as many acres each year by 2050, said Dave Peterson, a U.S. Forest Service research scientist in Seattle.
“Particularly in a place like Redding – where it gets really hot – we expect more fire,” he said.
Despite talk from leaders about thinning and lowering the chance of major fires in the state, their proposed changes since last summer’s blazes focus mostly on dealing with fires after they’ve already started rather than preventing them.
The reactive approach has its critics.
“We can have all the responders in the world, but unless we do more work in the prevention area, we will never resolve the wildland fire problem in California,” said Ruben Grijalva, former director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Grijalva headed the agency as it fought last summer’s blazes, retiring in February after three years as chief.
One of the few places that isn’t a battleground in debates about preventing and fighting fire is the land where communities and wildlands meet.
“We don’t have to worry about fire in our forests,” said Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project, a conservation group in the northern Sierra. “What we need to focus on is home protection.”
The same forested vistas that entice people also put their lives and homes at risk during a wildfire.
Calls for homeowners to clear a perimeter have become standard for Cal Fire. The agency’s fuel-thinning work is concentrated close to homes and done with little controversy.
But when discussion shifts to fires burning deeper into the wild, the debates heat up.
While most environmental groups support people protecting their homes by hacking down overgrown vegetation, many are opposed to forest-thinning projects that involve logging. Despite that opposition, there are places where consensus can be found – when the logging is done close to town.
The woods in a small project surrounding Weaverville, which wildfire nearly burned to the ground in 2001, is one of those places.
The Weaverville Community Forest was born of a unique arrangement using stewardship contracts – which typically had been used by the federal government to allow timber companies to guide management on timberland. This puts the public directly in control of 13,000 acres sandwiching the town.
The federal government has praised the effort, which allows any member of the community to come to planning meetings for the forest.
The community forest was a result of the public becoming frustrated with how the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service managed the lands close to town, said Bill Carlson – principal of Carlson Small Power Consultants in Redding, a biomass power consulting firm. The frustration came from the difficulty in navigating the bureaucracy in attempts to plan thinning projects.
“(The community forest is) a model of desperation in some respects,” Carlson said.
If Weaverville’s forest has come to be seen as a model of cooperation, the saga of the Quincy Library Group has become a cautionary tale. Started in 1992 by a timber industry forester, a county supervisor and an environmental attorney, the congressionally supported group created a pilot project that it said would lower fire danger over a wide landscape. The project plan consists of 1,700 miles of fuel breaks through eight Northern California counties, including Shasta and Tehama.
Despite the ambitious plans, little work has been done in the woods. Those in the group blame environmentalists who oppose the thinning projects because they involve logging, and have brought lawsuits to stop the work. Environmentalists blame the group for not being as inclusive as it claims.
Whatever the model for collaboration – small community or broad landscape – the groups at odds need to reach compromises for the fuel load in the north state to be lowered.
Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said he believes that would result in fires that are easier to fight and control, requiring fewer firefighters and other resources, and thereby lowering costs.
“The goal is not to have as many air tankers and firefighters,” Nielsen said.
The thick of thinning
There are environmentalists who agree with lawmakers and agency leaders that the amount of fuel in the north state needs to be reduced. But environmental groups are quick to sue when they believe big trees are in danger of being cut.
“We are not opposing everything,” said Craig Thomas, executive director of the Sierra Forest Legacy, another conservation group in the northern Sierra. “We are opposed to the most destructive (thinning projects).”
Timber companies say the harvests they plan aren’t destructive and will make the work economically viable. As the debates go on, the forests grow thicker with fuel and the chance of an intense fire tearing through increases, said Ed Murphy, a forester for Anderson-based timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries.
“It’s getting worse by the year,” he said. “… We’ve watched as large fires have changed that landscape where it should have been treated.”
To Murphy, treatment means selective logging and clearing.
As the legal stalemate continues, the federal government – which oversees the bulk of public land in the state – must wait for resolution or subsidize thinning that doesn’t include the potential profit of logging. So its leaders must choose whether to pay for prevention or suppression, a debate often settled in favor of suppression.
The Shasta-Trinity National Forest – the closest public forest to Redding – spent $124 million fighting fires last year, the bulk caused by a major thunderstorm at the start of summer, according to the U.S. Forest Service. For this fiscal year, which runs until September, the forest is spending $24 million on prevention.
Cal Fire spent about $44 million in the past year fighting fires in the north state, according to the agency. It has spent just over $1 million on prevention during the same time period.
Far too much taxpayer money is spent on suppression – especially on expensive firefighting aircraft – and not enough is spent on prevention, said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of the Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. The Eugene, Ore.-based group of current and former federal firefighters advocates for changes to firefighting philosophy.
He said too often the federal government is spending money to fight fires deep in the wildland that don’t threaten communities.
“It’s time we start investing in fire management and stop throwing money at futile fire-suppression efforts,” Ingalsbee said.
Lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., are weighing changes to wildfire management that could affect the north state.
The Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act of 2009 – known as the FLAME Act – passed the U.S. House in late March, but the Senate has yet to vote on it. The act would establish a fund to cover the cost of massive fire years.
By creating a suppression fund, the FLAME Act would prevent national forests from draining coffers tagged for thinning projects, the act’s authors say. A small number of large fires can quickly burn through all of a forest’s budget for firefighting.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Emergency Response Initiative – which state lawmakers are considering – focuses primarily on funding firefighting.
The initiative calls for $70 million next fiscal year, which starts in July, to be spent on increased fire-suppression personnel and equipment. That includes $29 million to increase Cal Fire’s seasonal staff by 1,100 firefighters.
“Rest assured that I’m going to do everything that I can as governor to give our firefighters all the tools that they need in order to fight those fires,” Schwarzenegger said at a news conference announcing the initiative early this month.
A state budget subcommittee in the state Assembly last week added $5 million to $10 million for prevention work to the governor’s proposal.
But even if the proposal is approved in the face of an enormous state budget shortfall, experts on thinning and prevention say it is not nearly enough to make an impact.
Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico, whose district includes the north state, believes a major increase in the number of thinning projects and prescribed burns are needed to reduce the amount of dead wood in the north state’s forests and around the West.
“We have forests that are 10 to 15 times denser than they had been historically,” Herger said.
One way to do that is to make it profitable, many lawmakers and people in the timber industry say.
Their proposed solution: Burn wood that workers clear from the forests in biomass power plants. There, it fuels fires that boil water and turn steam turbines.
The problem is that biomass alone isn’t profitable, said Carlson, the biomass consultant. It costs from $300 to $1,000 an acre to thin the woods – depending on the amount of material and terrain. Add the costs of transporting the fuel to the plant, and the costs of operating the plant itself, and Carlson said the costs outweigh money made from electricity sales.
To make up the difference, timber companies want to couple biomass collection with small-log cutting. Carlson said for each acre cleared, about 3,000 to 5,000 board feet of timber – or about a truckload and a half – need to be cut.
This is where environmental groups often part ways with biomass proposals, responding with appeals and lawsuits to stop tree-cutting, unless the work is done close to communities.
Thinning and even logging within a half-mile of communities for biomass is an option worth trying, said Rich Fairbanks, a fire specialist with The Wilderness Society, a national conservation group. He said he is helping state lawmakers craft a bill that would provide a $20-per-ton subsidy to help kick-start such pilot efforts around 10 yet-to-be determined California communities.
“I think it is a great idea,” he said. “Let’s see if it works.”
The red sunset
Smoke from last summer’s wildfires created hazy, crimson sunsets. The smoke stretched from Siskiyou County to south of Sacramento, coloring the sky nightly.
Assemblyman Nielsen said changes can be made while memories of those skies remain.
“We’ve got to keep it fresh in everyone’s mind – what happened last year,” he said.
Change won’t happen, he said, without support from people throughout the state.
“There has to be statewide recognition of the problem,” he said. “We need to continually remind people in the Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles.”
As summer fast approaches, fire season looms again in the north state. And still, much of the woods remains ready to ignite.
“Weeks ago an assessment of fire conditions in California indicated we were three to five weeks ahead of schedule,” said Del Walters, Cal Fire’s new chief. “The rain we’ve experienced in parts of the state will provide a temporary relief, but the stage has already been set.”