Editorials

California’s choice: Let it burn or figure out how to fight these ferocious fires

The Camp Fire burns as it lights up the sky under bright stars  Nov. 8 in Paradise. At least 71 people died. President Trump visits the area Saturday, and his agriculture and interior secretaries are blaming environmental groups for the state’s wildfire disasters.
The Camp Fire burns as it lights up the sky under bright stars Nov. 8 in Paradise. At least 71 people died. President Trump visits the area Saturday, and his agriculture and interior secretaries are blaming environmental groups for the state’s wildfire disasters. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The Camp Fire has claimed some 66 victims, and the search continues for hundreds more who are missing.

The Tubbs Fire, near Santa Rosa, killed 22 in 2017. Mudslides following the Thomas Fire killed 20 people last year. A few months ago, seven people perished in the Carr Fire in Redding. Nearly 9,000 firefighters are battling blazes in Malibu and Butte County.

Californians are anxious. And with our attention fixed on Paradise, we wonder: Who will be next?

Scientists predict extreme fire danger across the West will become the new normal by the middle of the 21st century, says report by the U.S Forest Service. Gov. Jerry Brown says we’re already living in the new abnormal.

Our hearts ache for those who have lost family, friends, pets and homes. One of the most-read stories on mercedsunstar.com this week is about how to help, and there’s no question your support is needed and appreciated. But in taking the tangible steps necessary to reduce such tragedies, we face a long road.

State and federal agencies, environmentalists, timber companies and homeowners must take seats at the same table. We must work through the risks and tradeoffs needed to find clear strategies to reduce confront these catastrophes. There is room for optimism and plenty of places to dig in:

▪ Forest management must improve. Thinning forests, saves forests. We’re not recommending enormous clear cuts, but what’s worse? Arguing over a few hundred acres of clear-cut or watching 100,000 acres burn? Key to any management plan are California’s sawmills. Thirty years ago there were 150; now there are 29. The milling capacity is 1.9 billion board-feet of lumber a year, but production the past few years has been 15 to 20 percent below that. A few mills, like the one at Chinese Camp, have been retrofitted to turn smaller-diameter trees into 2-by-4s. But most were built for larger, old-growth trees. Reinvestment is needed, but so are more sensible rules.

There are 100 million beetle-destroyed trees turning the Southern and Central Sierra into giant stands of kindling. Even if we can find enough loggers to cut them down what happens to the wood? It turns mushy after a few years and has no value even as biomass fuel. Left to stand, it feeds fire.

▪ How do we build more fire resistance into our communities? The areas burning now aren’t old-growth forest, but the chaparral areas of dry brush and oak which allow fire to move fast. Does that change our calculations of defensible space? Should building – or rebuilding – be allowed in such fire-prone areas? Why spend millions on a mansion in the hills if we put lives at risk to protect it? Just as such homes carry additional insurance premiums, should owners also pay fees for the costs of defending them?

▪ Evacuation routes are often inadequate. What would help – community sirens, reverse 911 calls, social-media alerts, forced evacuation?

▪ Most human-caused fires start near roadways and power lines. Some power lines can be buried; others cannot. How about mandatory routine thinning of fuels growing beneath lines and beside roads? That would give first-responders a chance to stop a fire faster. Thinning 500 feet on either side of a road creates a firebreak.

Landowners, environmentalists, the federal and state governments, our incoming governor and lawmakers all have roles and responsibilities. So do we. We can demand the change that is possible only through working together – or we can watch California burn.

This editorial was crafted by opinion editors in McClatchy’s five California newsrooms: The Sacramento Bee, The Fresno Bee, The Modesto Bee, The Merced Sun-Star and The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. A version appears in all five print editions.

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