The scientific knowledge on what causes wildfires to spread so rapidly and burn so intensively has long been known. Much of this knowledge has been brought together and published for the benefit of those who live in, profit from, or just care about the Sierra Nevada ecosystems.
One such publication is the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project published in 1996 by the University of California, Davis. It consists of four volumes with state-of-the-art information from university and public agency researchers and resource managers from agencies and institutions concerned with the future of all parts of the Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills.
In 1999 the Forest Service in California recognized the urgency for better defining management strategies for minimizing the destructive effects of increasing wildfire size and intensity, along with other critical resource needs.
In 2004 a document was published that provides the framework for amending individual National Forest management plans to that end. That document is Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment, Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, Volume 1 and Volume 2. The Stanislaus National Forest amended its management according to conclusions found in the “framework” environmental impact statement.
Now that the problems associated with fire behavior and management are so well known, isn’t it time to apply that knowledge to the ground where it will do some good?
To do that we have to stop whacking at the branches and get to the actual roots of the problem. These roots are widespread and very resistant to being dug out. They encompass all levels of government: county, state, federal and also developers and others with financial interest in our foothills and mountains. Each has a role in protecting us from the catastrophic physical, social and financial costs that are now being borne by all.
At the local level, county supervisors and planning departments need to be informed about wildfire ignition sources and behavior under local environmental conditions. That knowledge is contained in some of the documents mentioned above, but most useful to us is contained in the heads of fire and fuels specialists in the Forest Service, Cal Fire, and California Fire Safe Council members right here in Tuolumne County. All we need is the wisdom to take advantage of it.
Then, county administrators need the courage to apply the knowledge they have. This would involve where and how residential and other developments are designed so that firefighters can concentrate on putting fires out instead of protecting structures and escorting residents to safety. The courage needed to face all the conflicting values is immense.
At the state level, the challenges to gaining knowledge, wisdom and courage are no less daunting but the needs are different. For the state the ability to enforce existing rules, such as the 100-foot fuel clearance zones around private residences. It also has the ability to exercise some control over fuels on undeveloped private ownership without structures.
And there is another very large problem that is not generally recognized. That is about sharing responsibilities for the cost of suppression and the damages caused by wildfires. In some cases, it is simply unfair to place the entire responsibility on one party. Even then the cost of recovery, like the fires in Paradise, goes far, far beyond the direct expenses of fire suppression and property damage. Shouldn’t insurance companies and private individuals share more of that cost?
And then there is the role of the federal government as it affects Tuolumne County. The budget for the Forest Service, for example, is based on a two-year planning horizon with annual adjustments. This planning horizon has little to do with forest management projects that may require 10 years to complete.
Even if a 10-year budget was approved it is still up to the whims of the Congress and the president to carry it out. For any chance of lasting improvement in our county we need strong and unwavering support from our elected senators and representatives, especially those close to the foothills and mountains of California. This is the time for our elected representatives to face the real facts of our wildfire management problems, and to become part of the solution.
Robert Rogers is a forester/silviculturist who is retired from the U.S. Forest Service.