Could FEMA do a better job with our wildfire pandemic?
Three of our Evergreen Foundation board members are Forest Service retirees. We’ve known them since Evergreen’s earliest years. 1988 we think.
They are also members of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, a group that has offered wise counsel to both the agency and the Ag Secretary, Sonny Perdue concerning our wildfire pandemic, NEPA reform and workforce capacity – the precipitous decline in skill sets the Forest Service needs to restore dying national forests at a pace and scale that even approaches annual mortality.
Earlier this week, we suggested that perhaps the time has come to shift the Forest Service’s burgeoning fire department to the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] or Homeland Security. FEMA has a remarkable rapid response record where natural disasters are concerned – floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes. Homeland Security does exactly what its name implies: protects our homeland from foreign and domestic threats.
We think the West’s wildfire pandemic has become a national security issue owing to the threats it poses to our power grid and municipal water supplies. What happened to Pacific Gas and Electric’s grid in California in 2018 could happen to any public utility that owns transmission lines that cross dying and dead national forests. These grids are, in turn, connected to hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants, wind turbines and solar and natural gas power plants.
The 2018 Camp and Carr fires were just the beginning. Northern California’s 2020 August Fire – the first million-plus acre wildfire the Forest Service has faced since 1910. It recruited firefighters from railroad yards and skid row hotels in Spokane, Washington and Missoula, Montana. They had no training and scant equipment. Eight-six died battling “the Big Burn,” at three million acres the largest forest fire in U.S. history. Most were burned alive by the scorching heat of a firestorm they could not outrun.
And what do our board member retirees think of our FEMA idea? Not much. They certainly share our monumental frustration with the downfall of what was once the world’s finest forestry organization, but they aren’t ready to throw in the towel where their old “outfit” is concerned. But they agree with our belief that the agency’s flirtation with “returning fire to fire-depleted ecosystems” is a fool’s paradise.
Put simply, if the Forest Service had wanted to increase its use of fire as a management tool, it should have started small following the 1990 spotted owl listing, first thinning stands of trees that had grown too dense – its own lack of management. Then they could have used prescribed fire to dispose of woody debris. Had it done this, the agency could have safely run fire through the thinned stands at five to 10 year intervals, holding the risk of larger and more destructive wildfires in check.
Unfortunately, the highly politicized Northwest Forest Plan made no such accommodation for science. Instead, it created Late Succession Reserves that have since been lost by the millions of acres in stand replacing wildfires. No wonder spotted owl populations are still in free-fall.
In hopes of covering its own bloody trail, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed a screwball plan for shooting predatory barred owls. To this day, most owl scientists refuse to admit that adult spotted owls use different habitat niches for hunting, breeding and nesting. Meantime, environmental groups, for whom the spotted owl was only a surrogate for “saving old growth,” are now beating the drum for “saving future old growth.”
Nature – wildfire – doesn’t care which trees burn. Seedlings, saplings, second growth, third growth or old growth. Fuel is fuel – especially when it’s dead and has a moisture content significantly less than the 19 percent standard for kiln dried softwood lumber.
What to do? Our board member retirees believe the agency’s Washington, D.C. bureaucracy needs to be pulled apart, that decision-making needs to be decentralized, that regional foresters, forest supervisors and district rangers must be given that authority and responsibility for making decisions based on local conditions they are observing on the ground. This is how the Forest Service functioned for decades.
Last week, we applauded CAL FIRE’s just released plan for restoring national forests in California. Our board member retirees are less enthusiastic. Too much bureaucracy. Long on strategy and very short on tactics. Others in California have written us to say they don’t see how CAL FIRE and the Forest Service can harvest their targeted 500 million board feet of dead and dying timber annually.
We said as much last week, noting that the forestry skill sets and wood processing infrastructure needed to handle 500 million board feet annually aren’t present and will take years to develop. California’s mills and the Forest Service have been out of sync with one another since the owl was listed. West-wide, the reconfigured wood processing sector relies mostly on private, state and tribal timber. Lumbermen no longer trust the federal government to keep its promises. Serial litigators and their environmentalist clients hate the shareholder collaborative process because it shifts political power away from them.
We hope the incoming Biden Administration realizes that its well-publicized support for mitigating climate change and its applause for a “green new deal” both mandate that the Forest Service and all state forestry agencies in the West be given the legislative tools they need to turn back our wildfire pandemic by restoring forests before they burn.
This is undeniably a national security issue.