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Drought, Climate Change Force Re-Evaluation of Wildfire-Fighting Priorities

PHOTO: The Rim Fire burns in the Stanislaus National Forest last summer. In light of the state's current wildfires and changing climate, experts say it may be time to re-evaluate how wildfires are fought, and focus on making communities more fire-safe. Photo credit: Mike McMillan, U.S. Forest Service.
PHOTO: The Rim Fire burns in the Stanislaus National Forest last summer. In light of the state's current wildfires and changing climate, experts say it may be time to re-evaluate how wildfires are fought, and focus on making communities more fire-safe. Photo credit: Mike McMillan, U.S. Forest Service.
September 23, 2014

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California's ongoing drought continues to aggravate wildfires across the state.

The Boles Fire in Siskiyou County has damaged or destroyed 100 structures in Weed, and the King Fire in El Dorado County northeast of Sacramento has already burned more than 128 square miles - and is costing taxpayers $5 million a day to fight.

An overabundance of young trees and what some dismiss as "brush" are often made the culprits of these large fires, as was the case in last year's Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park.

But biologist Rick Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, says the state's current wildfires have causes other than simply a legacy of fire suppression.

"These forests have been impacted for so long because of drought and other conditions, and also past logging practices, that when these fires burn through there, they're going to burn through anything," says Halsey, "whether it's a cleared forest, a clear-cut forest, or a clogged forest."

Halsey says years of drought, aggravated by climate change – along with strong, hot winds – have created conditions where, as he puts it, "anything would burn."

In the case of both last year's Rim Fire and the current King Fire, he says, scars left upon the landscape from previous logging provided pathways for fire to travel.

"The massive numbers of clear-cuts, the fire's burning right through these things that are supposed to allow fires to be controlled," he explains. "And they're not working because we've got these severe drought conditions, we've got high winds, we've got temperatures that are off the record charts."

Halsey, who served as a Type II Wildland Firefighter in San Diego County, says firefighters face an impossible job in putting out large-scale wildland firestorms. The solution, in his view, is to keep from cutting everything away by confusing fuel with what grows naturally.

"The immediate reaction people have is, 'Well, it's fuel that's burning, so get rid of the fuel.' And what they're really talking about is habitat, where plants and animals live," Halsey explains. "And it isn't helpful to just continually look at the natural environment and call it 'fuel,' like some sort of pejorative enemy that needs to be conquered. It's an environment that we live in – that we choose to live in."

As is the case with earthquakes, Halsey says homes and buildings in California's fire-prone areas can and should be similarly adapted to survive fire. He believes the best practice is to leave large scale wild areas alone for nature to run its course, and instead focus on making communities less susceptible to fire.

"Retrofitting buildings and making sure they're fire-safe. Taking the stacks of wood away from the house and making sure your vents are ember-resistant," he says. "If you put as much money into that kind of thing as you do in fire suppression now, in terms of trying to control these big fires, it'd be a lot more effective. A lot more assets and homes and lives would be saved."

After the 2007 California firestorms, Halsey served as a member of the San Diego Regional Fire Safety Forum.

Tommy Hough, Public News Service - CA