Sunday, November 8, 2020

We're having a good week in California. It would be better if we capped it off by starting some fires.


Beyond the recent political developments (which are especially good news for the state), we've had some pretty good weather this weekend. Quite a bit of the state has seen some rain or snow. Not enough to affect the drought -- that's not likely this year -- but we have reduced the wild fire risk for the time being in a lot of areas. 

There should be a number areas where controlled burns can be conducted safely with minimal chance of them accidentally sparking a megafire and we desperately need those controlled burns.  Over a hundred years of disastrous fire suppression policy has left us with tens of millions of acres that are going to burn in the near future no matter what we do. 

By almost every standard whether you look at forest ecology, public health, economic impact, small fires ( the kind that were the norm before the arrival of European settlers) are better than megafires, but the incentives are heavily stacked on the side of doing nothing. What we need most now is decisive leadership and so far that's been more scarce than rain.

From James Temple:

As much as 20 million acres of federal, state, or private land across California needs “fuel reduction treatment to reduce the risk of wildfire,” according to earlier assessments by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and other state agencies. That’s nearly two-thirds of the state’s 33 million acres of forests and trees, and six times the area that has burned so far this year.

This “treatment” can include prescribed burns set under controlled conditions—ideally, spaced out geographically and across the year to prevent overwhelming communities with smoke. It can also mean using saws and machines to cut and thin the forests. Another option is “managed wildfire,” which means monitoring fires but allowing them to burn when they don’t directly endanger people or property.

More than a century of deferred work, however, means it’s hard to get into places that need thinning. It’s also risky to do prescribed burns or allow natural fires to rage, since the fuels are so built up in many places, Westerling says.


 If the goal is to burn up excess fuel, why not just let the wildfires rage? The problem is that runaway fires in overgrown forests don’t achieve the same results as controlled burns. These intense blazes can level vast stretches of the forest rather than simply clearing out the undergrowth and leaving the big trees standing, says Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. Instead of restoring the health of the forests, large, uncontrolled fires often transform them into shrub land, where vegetation grows quickly and severe fires can rapidly return.


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