Across our state, fires have burned a record-shattering 4 million plus acres so far this year. These wildfires have created astonishing scenes of destruction that have claimed many lives, destroyed property, and blanketed much of the state in almost unbreathable air. Many of these fires are so fierce that they create their own weather system and burn so intensely that they leave the earth sterile, for a time, in their wake.
If you listen to Governor Newsom, this can all be explained rather simply: climate change brings less rain, warmer temperatures and, thus, a longer fire season. I can’t deny that data indicates these changes are occurring, man-made or not, but I would argue that climate change is not the only thing fueling these fires.
There is simply too much debris and too many trees on these public lands. I have watched the gradual decline of the forest health firsthand. My family began summering cows in the Sequoia National Forest long before the United States Forest Service even existed. Today, decades of brush have accumulated to the point where a person can’t even walk through many areas, much less ride a horse. Records in an area of the Stanislaus Forest from 1911 reported 19 trees per acre, 100 years later, that same area holds approximately 260 trees per acre. This overcrowding results in sicker and weaker trees that are more susceptible to the pine bark beetle and drought, which have descended to finish them off.
Why does this excess fuel problem exist? Most of it can be attributed to mismanagement of public lands. Environmental policies that restrict activities that actually IMPROVE the health of the forest have been the norm for decades. California’s timber industry has fallen victim. Companies made 4.5 million board feet of lumber in 1975, but only one-third of that amount in 2016. Cattle grazing was also under scrutiny for years as environmentalists argued that cattle were destroying the lands and disturbing endangered species. We now know, or I should say, THEY now realize, that logging and grazing are actually critical activities for reducing fuel loads.
Another reason for the current condition of the public lands is the demonization of fire itself. Smokey Bear has ironically been terribly counter-productive. His platform that all fire is bad has, in fact, made the forest more susceptible to flame. Areas where fire has been prevented for decades have simply been primed for a catastrophic megafire.
Fire is a natural feature of the American West. Native Americans and ranchers, who originally managed these public lands, used to periodically start fires at the appropriate time of year to regenerate the forests they relied on. Introducing a similar program of multiple, low-level fires is a great option for beginning to improve the health of our forests. This burning, combined with a reemergence of logging and grazing, can help our cherished public lands resist the next cataclysmic wildfire.