Earth Log

From ashes of Rough fire, what’s the real problem here?

In August, an inversion layer spreads smoke from the Rough rire throughout the Kings Canyon National Park area north of Hume Lake.
In August, an inversion layer spreads smoke from the Rough rire throughout the Kings Canyon National Park area north of Hume Lake.

Our story Sunday about the 142,000-acre Rough fire touched a few nerves as it described seven weeks of burning, smoke, evacuations, expense and high anxiety.

The fire is not a big threat now, though it will likely burn until snow flies in the Sierra. Now people are beginning to ask tougher questions. Will this dangerous scenario get worse for foothill residents and the San Joaquin Valley?

Reader Carol Cusumano wrote: “Who is asking about the root problem of these fires being so out out of control? What about the lack of good management of the trees and brush?”

Great questions, but the answers may not be satisfying. Up to 80 percent of the Sierra Nevada’s forests are ticking time bombs for this kind of fire, researchers say.

It is natural for forests here to have small, frequent fires. But in the last century, federal agencies snuffed every fire they could, and past logging practices made it worse. Fire policies and logging changed in the last few decades, but not soon enough to prevent the overgrowth.

How big is the problem? Sierra forests cover about 25 million acres. We’re talking about the footprint of Los Angeles times 78. It’s bigger than the state of Maine.

Sierra forests are a vast filter for water and air in California. To be healthy, they need to be far more open than they are. In the past, fires burned regularly, clearing out the forest with low intensity, researchers say.

Now dense stands of trees and thickets of brush compete for sun, water and soil nutrients. Fire climbs this ladder of plants from low to high. Reaching the crown of mature trees – some are hundreds of years old – the fire will incinerate them, often destroying natural communities of insects and animals.

Even if federal authorities did 10 times more thinning and restoration of these forests, it still might take decades before they are fire resilient again. It also would take a thoughtful, dedicated approach. Bottom line, it would take money.

A few days ago, a group of scientists, including University of California researchers, released a study aimed at such longer-term questions. The provocative headline on one news release last week: “Wildfires will get worse unless forest agencies proactively work with fire.”

The study says the U.S. Forest Service, for the first time, will expend more than half its fire budget this year on suppression, meaning there is less money for thinning forests. Some weeks this year, the Forest Service has spent more than $200 million on fighting fires. The Rough fire alone has been about $100 million.

With climate change and droughts more likely, the costs will only climb, researchers say. UC Berkeley researcher Scott Stephens, who worked on the new study, says some changes need to be made.

“We want to keep people safe,” he says. “At the same time, I don’t see how we ever get out of the loop we have now.”

In the new study, titled “Reform forest fire management,” scientists suggest dividing the work into three zones. The first would focus on mechanical thinning – think chainsaws – where people live in the forest.

The second would be five or more miles away from people, combining mechanical thinning and some use of fire. The third would be remote wilderness, where fire would be the main tool.

The scientists also suggest tapping the Federal Emergency Management Agency (the folks more typically associated with disasters like hurricanes) for wildfire suppression funding, instead of using Forest Service money that would have gone to restoration and thinning.

One other idea: Shift fire costs to local agencies and entities where communities exist within a forest area.

“That could be a sensitive subject,” Stephens says. “There is also the issue of smoke in populated areas. But this is a time to talk about fire as an ecological process.”

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