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Preventing the next firestorm

By Thomas M. Bonnicksen and Chadwick D. Oliver
web posted October 24, 2005

The threat everyone feared became reality when hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into the Gulf Coast leaving a huge path of death and destruction. These hurricanes killed over 1,000 people, destroyed 216,000 homes, displaced millions, and flattened whole forests. Tidal surges threw barges and cars around like toys causing damages that exceed $250 billion.

We can't prevent catastrophic hurricanes, but we can reduce the damage by being better prepared.

However, we can prevent catastrophic wildfires like the one that caused widespread devastation to Southern California in 2003.

As we approach the second anniversary of the 2003 firestorm, people are well aware of the danger, but we still are unprepared for the next one. Awareness is not preparedness.

We knew about the serious fire hazard in Southern California long before the fires of 2003 turned three quarters of a million acres to ash and charcoal, killed 24 people, destroyed over 3,700 homes, damaged roads, and clogged streams with mud.

In 1994, the Watershed Fire Council of Southern California and the University of California Cooperative Extension produced a report on how to restore health and resistance to catastrophic fires to dangerously overcrowded forests in the San Bernardino Mountains. The Forest Service and community leaders didn't implement the recommendations. As a result, bark beetles killed the overly crowded trees and created more fuel, allowing the wildfires to destroy even more of the forest.

In 1995, the Watershed Fire Council and the University of California conducted a similar study of brushlands that documented the severe fire hazard in San Diego County and ways to reduce the risk. Like the San Bernardino Mountains report, agencies responsible for taking action ignored the threat.

There is no doubt that the 1994 and 1995 reports, if implemented, would have dramatically reduced the severity of the bark beetle infestation in the San Bernardino Mountains and saved lives and homes from the horrific fires of 2003.

Since the fires, we have spent tens of millions of dollars in Southern California making up for our past failure to thin overgrown forests and breakup vast areas of heavy brush. State, county, and local governments used their money to remove beetle-killed trees within communities. The Forest Service concentrated on cutting dead trees in narrow strips along roads. They also built a few fuel breaks, mainly around Lake Arrowhead.

Although helpful, the area cleared of dead trees, and the few places thinned, are too small to reduce the chance of another firestorm. Likewise, narrow fuel breaks are too unreliable to provide adequate protection so most communities are still in jeopardy.

The best way to prevent the next firestorm is to deal with the cause, and that is fuel. Ask yourself, why did bark beetles and wildfires destroy much of the San Bernardino National Forest? Why are we spending so much money for fuel breaks, defensible space around homes, and clearing evacuation routes? The answer is that there are too many, crowded trees and too much old brush, and most of it is on national forest land. Until the Forest Service restores the national forests in Southern California and the Sierra Nevada to a more natural healthy condition, future insect infestations and firestorms are inevitable.

The Forest Service is limited in its ability to act soon. They say they are leaving all the beetle-killed trees in the "general forest" as wildlife habitat, even though a few trees per acre would be sufficient. These dead trees will pile up as they fall and make the fire hazard more severe – and will certainly not provide the habitat if they burn up.

The Forest Service says it wants to do more, but the money is gone. Their budget of $30 million for next year's thinning projects on the San Bernardino National Forest has been cut to $5 million to help pay for hurricane relief on the Gulf Coast.

There are only two options: let forests grow thicker and burn, or thin the forests. Thinning the forest could be done cheaply, quickly, and with a double environmental benefit by utilizing the thinned trees for wood products and biomass fuel. Half of the environmental gain would be a restored, healthy forest. The other would be for building and fuel so we use less fossil fuels.

The shortage of public funding should not block thinning the forest. Private enterprise can do the thinning and sell the wood. If selling the wood will not pay all costs of thinning, public funds could be stretched.

If we don't make the right choice now to prevent the next firestorm, we will pay far more later to deal with the disaster and its aftermath. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita make it clear. The cost of preparation and prevention is far less than the cost of recovery.

Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D., is an historian of North American forests and the originator of "restoration forestry." He is professor emeritus of forest science at Texas A&M University, visiting professor at the University of California-Davis, visiting scholar at The Forest Foundation, and author of "America's Ancient Forests" (John Wiley, 2000). Chadwick D. Oliver, Ph.D., is Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University and Director of Yale's Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry. His work concentrates on landscape approaches to forest management; and he is co- author with Bruce C. Larsen of "Forest Stand Dynamics" (John Wiley, 1996).

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