Editorials

Want to know what is causing forest fires? Look down to find out

The current supposed cause of the excessive forest wildfires is the hot weather. The real culprit is the fuel. If there is sufficient fuel, the forest fires will burn at any temperature.

So what is the fuel and why so much? The fuel is the dead and dying standing trees as well as the fallen dead trees, branches and leaves on the forest floor.

What caused the build up of the fuel? In the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s, under pressure from extreme environmentalists, the Forest Service decided to halt timber sales. This action was blamed on the alleged threat to the habitat of the spotted owl. As a result, the trees kept growing. When water was short, some trees lost out in the fight for water and became food for the bark beetles.

Other bad results of the halt of the timber harvesting and sales were: loss of income from timber sales reduced the Forest Service budget supporting timber management; build up of fuel in the forest and on its floor; and most of the foresters left the Forest Service because they were used mostly for the timber sales.

The foresters and engineers who supported the timber sales program were replaced by biologists, botanists, archeologists, hydrologists and social scientists. That changed the Forest Service from an agency that supported managing the forests for multiple use and sustained yield to one of preservation and protection. The national forests are now viewed by the Forest Service as habitat to support the species listed or proposed for protection.

On top of that, budgets for the Forest Service districts are set in Washington, D.C., ignoring the end of harvesting and the resultant loss of income from timber sales, and the end of clearing of fuel from the forests. The California Department of Forestry and Cal Fire used to do control burns and clearing with the Forest Service, but that was stopped as well.

Got the picture now? The only real remedy would be a return to timber sales and clearing of fuel from the forests. The elimination of the fuel will mean less arson and less loss of forest and property, no matter what the cause of the fires. If you do not think that the lack of thinning the forest and clearing of fuel is a major part of the problem, consider that there are presently 129 million dead and dying trees in the forests.

According to Cal Fire, there were 47 deaths and 9,471 homes destroyed in California in 2017 as the result of forest wildfires, not considering fires that involved less than 300 acres. Those figures were the largest to date in the past decade. As a matter of local history, because of the efforts of the Coarsegold Resource Conservation District to have home owners in North Fork clear the fuel from their properties, there was no loss of homes during two major wildfires.

This year we have paid a horrible price for faulty management of our forests. It is time to change the way we manage our forests.

James Flanagan of Madera is a retired attorney and presently active in North Fresno Rotary.

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