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We can lament the tragic forest fires burning in California, but a discussion of contributing hazards and causes is urgent if we are to minimize future conflagrations. The Left points the finger at climate change. Donald Trump, along with many forestry experts, point at forest mismanagement. Whether you believe in climate change or not, Trump is correct on this point. However, he blames the state of California when in fact a good deal of the responsibility falls on the federal government. And as usual, Trump has inflamed passions with unnecessarily aggressive rhetoric and threats:

There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now or no more Fed payments.”

Trump was condemned for his tone, of course, but also for the mere temerity to discuss the relationship between policy and fire hazards at such a tragic moment. Apparently, it’s a fine time to allege causes that conform to the accepted wisdom of the environmental Left, but misguided forest management strategy is off-limits.

The image at the top of this post is from the cover of a book by wildlife biologist George E. Gruell, published in 2001. The author includes hundreds of historical photos of forests in the Sierra Nevada range from as early as 1849. He pairs them with photos of the same views in the late 20th century, such as the photo inset on the cover shown above. The remarkable thing is that the old forests were quite thin by comparison. The following quote is from a review of the book on Amazon:

Even the famed floor of Yosemite is now mostly forested with conifers. I myself love conifers but George makes an interesting point that these forests are “man made” and in many ways are unhealthy from the standpoint that they lead to canopy firestorms that normally don’t exsist when fires are allowed to naturally burn themselves out. Fire ecology is important and our fear of forest fires has led to an ever worsening situation in the Sierra Nevada.”

I posted this piece on forest fires and climate change three months ago. There is ample reason to attribute the recent magnitude of wildfires to conditions influenced by forest management policy. The contribution of a relatively modest change in average temperatures over the past several decades (but primarily during the 1990s) is rather doubtful. And the evidence that warming-induced drought is the real problem is weakened considerably by the fact that the 20th century was wetter than normal in California. In other words, recent dry conditions represent something of a return to normal, making today’s policy-induced overgrowth untenable.

Wildfires are a natural phenomenon and have occurred historically from various causes such as lightning strikes and even spontaneous combustion of dry biomass. They are also caused by human activity, both accidental and intentional. In centuries past, Native Americans used so-called controlled or prescribed burns to preserve and restore grazing areas used by game. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fire suppression became official U.S. policy, leading to an unhealthy accumulation of overgrowth and debris in American forests over several decades. This trend, combined with a hot, dry spell in the 1930s, led to sprawling wildfires. However, Warren Meyer says the data on burnt acreage during that era was exaggerated because the U.S. Forest Service insisted on counting acres burned by prescribed burns in states that did not follow its guidance against the practice.

The total acreage burned by wildfires in the U.S. was minimal from the late 1950s to the end of the century, when a modest uptrend began. In California, while the number of fires continued to decline over the past 30 years, the trend in burnt acreage has been slightly positive. Certainly this year’s mega-fires will reinforce that trend. So the state is experiencing fewer but larger fires.

The prior success in containing fires was due in part to active logging and other good forest management policies, including prescribed burns. However, the timber harvest declined through most of this period under federal fire suppression policies, California state policies that increased harvesting fees, and pressure from environmentalists. The last link shows that the annual “fuel removed” from forests in the state has declined by 80% since the 1950s. But attitudes could be changing, as both the state government and environmentalists (WSJ, link could be gated) are beginning to praise biomass harvesting as a way to reduce wildfire risk. Well, yes!

The reason wildfire control ever became a priority is the presence of people in forest lands, and human infrastructure as well. Otherwise, the fires would burn as they always have. Needless to say, homes or communities surrounded by overgrown forests are at great risk. In fact, it’s been reported that the massive Camp Fire in Northern California was caused by a PG&E power line. If so, it’s possible that the existing right-of-way was not properly maintained by PG&E, but it may also be that rights-of-way are of insufficient width to prevent electrical sparks from blowing into adjacent forests, and that’s an especially dangerous situation if those forests are overgrown.

Apparently Donald Trump is under the impression that state policies are largely responsible for overgrown and debris-choked forests. In fact, both federal and state environmental regulations have played a major role in discouraging timber harvesting and prescribed burns. After all, the federal government owns about 57% of the forested land in California. Much of the rest is owned privately or is tribal land. Trump’s threat to withhold federal dollars was his way of attempting to influence state policy, but the vast bulk of federal funds devoted to forest management is dedicated to national forests. A relatively small share subsidizes state and community efforts. Disaster-related funding is and should be a separate matter, but Trump made the unfortunate suggestion that those funds are at issue. Nevertheless, he was correct to identify the tremendous fire hazard posed by overgrown forests and excessive debris on the forest floor. Changes to both federal and state policy must address these conditions.

For additional reading, I found this article to give a balanced treatment of the issues.