God Almighty this is hard to watch

There is nothing new, normal, natural, or inevitable about what we are witnessing... What we are witnessing is not “the new normal.” Nor is it a direct result of “climate change.” It is the downstream result of congressional/federal failure to control three decades of uninterrupted tree growth in national forests that hold too many trees for the natural carrying capacity of the land.

Jim Petersen -
5 MINUTE READ
God Almighty this is hard to watch

In a perfect world, we would be removing dying and dead trees before wildfire strikes, not leaving their bone-dry carcasses for the wildfire next time.

There are no words to describe the 24/7 wildfire crisis ripping through forests in northern California. The Caldor Fire, advancing on Lake Tahoe from the south is a very stubborn 213,000 - acre behemoth. At this hour, about 34,000 homes around the lake are in harm’s way.

Earlier this week, 30 to 40 mile an hour winds are tossing firebrands four miles ahead of the main fire. Firefighters made good progress yesterday – September 2 – but full containment isn’t expected until mid-September at the earliest– a month after the blaze of unknown origin started near Caldor, a long gone mill town built by the storied California Door Company.

Further south in the Sierras, the 885,954 - acre Dixie Fire wiped out historic Greenville on August 4. Dixie is about 55 percent contained and is now the second largest wildfire in California history. At one million acres, last year’s August Complex - a “gigafire"" topping out at over 1 million acrs - remains the largest, but for how long? At 1,357 square miles, Dixie has now burned an area 59 times the size of Manhattan and 20 times the size of Washington, D.C.

If Caldor rolled all the way up the west side of Lake Tahoe – which now seems less likely - it would  take out Tahoe City, then Truckee and the bucolic Tahoe/Donner subdivisions that hold hundreds of chalets owned by the Bay Area’s hoi polloi. It would then will become the largest and certainly most destructive wildfire in California history. To date, California wildfires - the August Complex is now a “gigafire” - a rare designation for a blaze that burns at least a million acres - have increased in size eightfold since the 1970s, and the annual area burned by fires has increased by nearly 500%.

In the dead of winter, Tahoe/Donner snow often touches the eves on alpine-style homes. It is a skier’s paradise. Summer nights bring the sound of white fir boughs brushing against your redwood siding. They are the trees in your neighbor’s yard - and you love them for the shade and privacy they provide. It is unthinkable that these beautiful trees pose a deadly fire risk, but they do.

The permitting process associated with removing a tree from your yard is byzantine. There is a local firewood gathering program that I presume is run by the tree removal overlords. Two-foot log lengths are free in several collection areas. The winter crowd burns them in their fireplaces. Almost no one who spends time here has any idea what danger they face. But their neighbors at the south end of Lake Tahoe know it well. Thousands were evacuated from their homes last weekend.

None of them know what they will find when they are permitted to return. My guess is not much. The Caldor Fire can easily incinerate an entire subdivision in minutes. The home insurance industry is tripling and quadrupling fire rates – and now the Biden Administration has begun to fret about the dollar loss payouts in financial markets that typically share these losses in large insurance pools.

Home insurers publish well-illustrated booklets that show homeowners how to protect their property from wildfire. Tahoe fire departments, the state and the Forest Service also provide lots of help to homeowners who want it. There are even lists of loggers who thin estate-size properties to park-like standards. But some homeowners simply won’t do it. Such is their love for their trees.

What to do? Caldor and Dixie certainly provide teaching moments, as do all the West’s outsized wildfires - but the emotion-charged substance of the currently uncivil wildfire dialogue needs to be toned down so that honest conversation is possible and real-world solutions can be worked out.

What we are witnessing is not “the new normal.” Nor is it a direct result of “climate change.” It is the downstream result of congressional/federal failure to control three decades of uninterrupted tree growth in national forests that hold too many trees for the natural carrying capacity of the land.

Stressed by drought-induced insect and disease infestations – call it climate change if you want – bad things begin to happen that rarely happen in well-managed forests. Think tribal, state, county and privately-owned forestlands. Here, forest density and insects and diseases are controlled by periodically removing enough trees to create more growing space for the best seed trees. This is the essence of good forestry in mixed conifer, dry site forests. It is very different from what customarily occurs in rain-soaked coastal forests, a day’s drive west of Lake Tahoe.

It is harvesting – cutting down trees – that is the source of greatest distress for most who own homes in Lake Tahoe environs. I understand their angst. Our neighbors removed four beautiful fir and cedar trees from their yard for reasons that make no sense to us.

But forests are not manicured neighborhood yards. The best way to protect your home is to keep the trees and shrubs in your yard properly spaced and trimmed and keep nearby forests thinned to a safe and sustainable growth standard. Lots of professional help is available. See *Firewise USA. and Cal Fire

There is nothing new, normal, natural or inevitable about what we are witnessing. Protecting 193 million acres of publicly owned forest dictates that the Forest Service needs a much larger fire department than the one it currently has, but it also needs to rebuild its flagging forestry organization so that it can care for the natural assets the public loves: clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and the wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity.

In a perfect world, we would be removing dying and dead trees before wildfire strikes, not leaving their bone-dry carcasses for the wildfire next time. Something for our friends and neighbors living around or near Lake Tahoe to think about.