“Trump again suggested poor forest management is to blame for California’s deadly wildfires and said he’s ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stop giving the state money ‘unless they get their act together.’ ” (“Trump threatens relief funds,” Times-Standard, Jan. 10, Page A1.)
It is reprehensible that he would withhold humanitarian aid based on such wrong-headed and ill-informed reasoning.
President Trump once cited the dubious idea that the Finns sweep the forest floor to prevent wildfires. Historically, in some parts of the world, people used every bit of combustible organic matter for household heating and cooking. However, today we recognize the importance of maintaining the nutrient rich forest floor for the long term productivity and health of the forest. And long since, household heating and cooking has been accomplished by other cleaner fuels in most parts of the world.
California has been improving forest management since at least 1973 with the passage of the Forest Practices Act. This act has evolved over time to include some of the most stringent forest management regulations in the world. These regulations have been enforced for nearly five decades by governmental oversight and the vigilance of many environmental organizations. To suggest withholding FEMA funding to force a correction in forest practices that would have an instantaneous impact on wildland fire danger is moronic, not to mention inhumane. The growth cycle of forests and their management is in centuries, not in annual funding cycles. And people are suffering from the lasting impacts of the fires.
Trump’s statement ignores many facts. Much of the fire danger in California is not in forests at all, but rather in other vegetation types like woodlands (tree-dominated vegetation with trees widely spaced and areas between trees filled with brush or grass), brushlands, and grasslands. Management options in these diverse vegetation types are not limited to “sweeping and cleaning,” but include thinning, selective harvesting, vegetation conversion, and fuels management through controlled burning, to name just a few. In California, 57 percent of forest land is owned by the federal government. The humanitarian danger from wildland fire is at the urban/wildland interface where management ranges from forest management to lawn care and everything in between. Defensible space, which is a legitimate concept that Trump’s “sweeping and cleaning” might include, is very important to keep vegetation fires from becoming structure fires; but, in the type of firestorms created in the Camp Fire, defensible space becomes nearly irrelevant.
The magnitude of California’s wildfires can reach extremes in which they create their own weather, winds, and super-hot temperatures that explosively ignite structures. Climate change is driving fire cycles. Long dry summers kill plants, increasing and excessively drying fuels. Even without arson or carelessness, lightning ignites fires. Desertification results when fire converts vegetation from forest to woodland, from woodland to brush or grassland, and then to desert. Whether you believe that global warming is a result of human activity or not (it is), it is undeniable that it is happening. The intensification of the fire season in the West is just one of many pieces of incontrovertible evidence. If we do not curb global warming, the only thing that will end the fire cycle in California is the denudation of the landscape that is desertification. No vegetation — no fires. This is the trend we are on now.
Trump has asserted that snow in New York City must mean that global warming is not happening; he doesn’t distinguish between weather and climate. He is trying to mislead us into believing that a single cold day in one place means that the entire atmosphere is not warming up — but it is. He ignores the fact that it would take an incredible number of people and machines an incredible amount of time to sweep and clean 33 million acres of forest. And what would we do with the astronomical amount of stuff that we would sweep up? Forest floor averages about 71,000 pounds per acre in the mixed conifer forests of California — that could amount to about 11.5 million tons. This is a wet and dirty form of energy, and its removal would impoverish the health of forests. Oh, and by the way, also keep in mind that every year, more leaves and twigs fall to the forest floor requiring more sweeping. This would turn an essential process of natural decomposition and nutrient cycling into a huge disposal problem. But, perhaps I’m wrong, and President Trump could sell all these leaves and twigs to Mexico for $495 per ton to build his wall.
Susan Bicknell is Emeritus Professor of Forestry and Forest Ecology, and Emeritus Dean for Research and Graduate Studies at Humboldt State University. She earned a Ph.D. in Forest Ecology from Yale University, and is an Emeritus Certified Senior Ecologist with the Ecological Society of America.