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In an era of bigger wildfires, are trees the enemy?

Houses consumed by fire, yet living trees survive.  Why?

Yesterday and today we give thanks: Northern California is getting its first significant rainfall in months, ending the Golden State’s typically dry summer-autumn season — and finally help extinguishing its unusually destructive wildland fires. Thanks, of course, also go to hundreds of firefighters who risk their lives to save lives. And hundreds more volunteers who helped their neighbors.

This and other recent fires have burned more homes, and killed more people, than ever before in recent CA history. As of this post, over 80 people are reported killed, and hundreds more are still missing from the Camp Fire in Paradise, CA, the most destructive of property (about 14,500 structures including over 11,700 residences) and deadly in California history. In Southern California, the Woolsey Fire, now almost contained, devastated Malibu and surrounding Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Thousands of houses (people’s homes) and other structures are destroyed. In addition, worst-ever air pollution has been affecting a record numbers of Californians in Los Angeles, HCN’s SF Bay Area and beyond.

Already, the U.S. President and Secretary of the Interior have laid blame for the historically large fires not on global warming with its increased heat waves and droughts, but instead on inadequate “forest management.” It’s easy to brush aside The President’s improvisational gaffe about “raking” the “forest floor” “like Finland does” as an antidote to California’s wildfire danger. This, after he spoke with the Finnish President who later went on record to state the obvious: No, Finns don’t “rake” their forests. READ CNN article.

But the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, is making a case similar to the President’s that is more forceful and more coherent — but no less inaccurate. Zinke's comments must be reckoned with — brought to light and under rational scrutiny — since they are both inflammatory and defamatory, blaming these fires on “...lawsuit after lawsuit by, yes, the radical environmental groups that would rather burn down the entire forest than cut a single tree or thin the forest."

In a recent interview on Breitbart, Zinke used many of the common terms — also commonly misunderstood and misleading terms — that the timber industry uses to lobby the government to allow increased logging of federal forests. Their arguments to “thin” and “manage” our national forests have only become louder and more frequent since fires have become larger and more frequent.

But is this prescription to “thin” and “manage” forests correct? Does it address the root cause of more and larger wildfires and W.U.I. (Wildland-Urban Interface) fires? First, “thinning” and “management” are timber industry euphemisms for logging, pure and simple. Timber companies have no financial incentive to do anything but extract trees for profit. The public’s fear of fire is undeniably and understandably great, and thus can be exploited to enact timber companies’ agenda of increased logging. So they, and Zinke, claim fires in California (and elsewhere) will be quelled by cutting down trees which, when called “thinning,” doesn’t sound so much like killing. But does cutting down living, dead, or dying trees help reduce fires? And, actually separate from the issue of fires, will this reduce the ignition of houses (and structures), which is what people are concerned about?

Interior Secretary, Zinke parrots timber industry phrases as prescriptions to combat forest fires, including: “...remove the dead and dying timber...” “[forests suffer from]...years of neglect...” His comments indicate a specific view of forests and the natural world, and an increasingly vociferous party line: wild forests are dangerous places that need human “management” to “clean them up” and “make them safer,” — or else nearby human populations will be harmed or killed by these unregulated, flammable maelstroms-in-waiting.

Zinke avoids discussion of the fact that 97% of the international community of climate scientists have reached consensus, years ago, on anthropogenic global warming. Also absent is any human responsibility for deforestation which contributes to global warming which itself dramatically increases Californian fire danger in several ways including longer, hotter, drier fire seasons. The tragic irony here is prescribing more tree-felling and forest clearing as the cure for increased fire danger created in part by tree-felling and clearing (aka, deforestation). And converting the little remaining old-growth forest into heavily “managed” corporate tree plantations-for-profit, with far less biodiversity, ecological service and wildlife than old-growth forests.

The Interior Secretary implicates a culprit responsible for all forest fires, while drawing no distinction between wilderness fires away from human development, and forests near developed areas (Wildland-Urban Interface fires, such as in the Oakland-Berkeley hills).

Nor does he discuss the additional problem of we humans building more houses in previously uninhabited forest areas, then crying fire danger when fires naturally occur, as they have for tens of thousands of years.

The ultimate timber lobbyist perspective is revealed in Zinke’s naming his culprit: “...radical environmentalists that want nature to take its course…” He goes so far as to say, "I will lay this [CA wildfire/s] on the foot of those environmental radicals that have prevented us from managing the forest for years. And you know what? This is on them.”

If we don’t accurately identify the factors responsible for fires, and not just fires, but what ignites houses and structures we want to protect, proposed solutions will be ineffective. In some cases, particularly in W.U.I.s like our East Bay Hills, the wrong prescription can increase fire danger. For example, cutting down trees in the Oakland and Berkeley Hills allows wind-driven fires and dramatically reduces the moisture in a landscape, thus increasing the chance of fire ignition. READ MORE.

To repeat and reinforce these points, let’s come at these issues again in a commonly-asked questions format:

1) Does this new era of bigger, more frequent California fires mean we should cut down the trees around our houses to create the “defensible space” many firefighting agencies refer to?

Misinformation and misinterpretation on “defensible space” is rampant. And to be fair, even well-meaning experts disagree about some of the prescriptions. Complicating matters further, there is no one-prescription-fits-all because of variations in structures, landscape, topography, vegetation and weather conditions.

Yet there are solutions. For one, too many people have now come to fear trees as fire hazards, and not with wild exaggerations about eucalyptus trees which this website has written about. Fear of fire is so easily exploited, people can be convinced that even living trees are a fire hazard. They are not. Yes, trees will burn in a conflagration, but living trees are LESS flammable than grasses, and shrubs, including so-called “native” shrubs like California’s common coyote brush.

People should realize that houses, theirs and their neighbors’, are much more flammable than trees of any species. And that in recent firestorms, houses ignite, burn hotter, and spread fires much faster than trees do.

Houses burn to their foundations; trees survive.

PHOTO ABOVE: Houses burned to their foundations, yet many trees didn't ignite.

At best, cutting down lots of trees, or “thinning” a forest, can be described as “reducing the fuel load” and “reducing canopy fires” — but only swaps these fire dangers for other fire dangers, specifically: 1) wind-driven fires; creating hotter, drier landscapes devoid of cooling trees, and; 2) smaller vegetation that grows in place of felled trees dries out in fire season to become an easily ignited fire danger the trees were not. Grass and brush fires spread more quickly and uncontrollably than forest fires do. READ MORE.

But some “nativists” — so-called “native” plant activists who advocate killing species of plants and animals they unscientifically label, “non-native” — want to eradicate entire species of specific trees and plants. And logging companies advance their cut-down-trees-for-profit agendas by teaching people to fear trees and forests. So both logging companies and nativists fan flames of public fear of trees to promote extensive “thinning,” “culling” and forest “management” — all euphemisms for deforestation, all of which increases fire danger, drought, and global warming. READ MORE.

To repeat this key point: cutting down trees and forests creates its own fire dangers, including reducing cooling shade, increasing wind speeds which drive fires beyond containment, and increasing a landscape’s heat, aridity, drought, thus warming local climates. Besides providing innumerable other ecological service like oxygen production, carbon sequestration, soil remediation, hillsides stabilization and animal habitat, trees are a great protection against W.U.I. fires.

The way to reduce structure (houses and buildings) fires is to make structures ignition-resistant. As this website details, you don’t need to cut down trees and forests to protect your house from fire. Instead, take steps to make it difficult for the heat and embers from wildland fires to ignite your house. Use fire-resistant materials. Move piles of firewood and other dried wood and flammable materials of all kinds away from your house. Critically, keep roofs and gutters and eaves free of dead, dry leaves and needles and other so-called “fine fuels” which are easily ignited by a fire’s embers.

2) Will cutting down trees, variously called “forest management,” “thinning,” “culling,” logging, and clearing understory brush reduce fire danger for nearby houses?

The challenge of answering this common question is the assumptions hidden within it. That our houses are static, unchanging entities that are flammable, but that forests can be altered or reduced to reduce a threat they pose.

If you cut down an entire forest and then pave over the clearcut so no other vegetation can grow in its place, then yes, houses can’t be ignited by fire from it. But cutting down thousands or even the millions of trees in this prescription is so extreme, few people advocate it. And yet, this extreme measure is happening in many places, in slow-motion, over time, including all over the Bay Area. We’re steadily marching the path of deforestation, with ongoing development encroaching on wildlands and forests, and also by conditioning people to consider trees flammable and therefore dangerous. This, in our era of global deforestation and global warming when we desperately need more trees and forests anywhere and everywhere to mitigate the existential threat we’ve set in motion.

“Management” and “thinning” remove so much forest that the resulting loss of shade, moisture, and soil retention swap in different fire dangers (and other ecological damage), including increased heat and aridity, local warming and drought. Few of the millions of people who choose to live outside major cities don’t consciously want to destroy or denude nearby forests and trees. But the current Secretary of the Interior, in repeating the timber industry’s fallacious talking points, can convince people they must, for the first time in human history, fear forests. Zinke is right, however, when implying that environmentalists consider fire “natural.” Indeed it is an inevitable force in any wildland — and to rejuvenate, renew and maintain healthy forests. READ MORE.

BUT WE REPEAT FOR EMPHASIS: you don’t need to cut down trees and forest surrounding or near your house; instead, make your house ignition-resistant.

Winds drive wildfires and make them uncontainable. Fine fuels like grasses and shrubs ignite much more easily than do trees of any species. Cutting down trees increases fire danger in numerous ways, including: 1) increasing winds. Cutting down trees also: 2) removes the shade and moisture retention of trees, thus drying out surrounding vegetation so it becomes more easily ignited. Especially in the SF Bay Area, 3) trees condense fog from the air into fog-drip “rain” so removing trees reduces fog-drip moisture. Finally, and critically so, 4) when trees are killed, other, smaller, finer vegetation like ivy, thistle, broom and grasses, grow in their place — all of which ignite more easily than trees. So cutting down trees usually INCREASES fire danger.

3. What factors make recent CA fires so extraordinarily large and uncontainable? Does global warming, aka anthropogenic climate change, play a role?

Numerous factors contribute to the severity and number of fires. These include:

1) more heat waves and more drought — demonstrably caused by global warming. 97% of the world’s climate scientists are in consensus on this. Heat and drought create a longer dry/fire season, more dried vegetation, notably in California, and fires are thus more easily ignited and uncontainable;

2) human fire suppression which increases the amount of “fuel” in forests when fires inevitably occur;

3) human encroachment, more housing development in formerly uninhabited forested areas.

READ: L.A. Times article, “Thousands of homes incinerated but trees still standing: Paradise fire’s monstrous path”

The bottom line is trees have always been a critical part of the Californian and American and international landscape, and a critical, interdependent part of the Earth's ecosystems. They provide numerous and prodigious ecological service, far outweighing any purported fire danger. In our current era of global warming, air and water and ocean pollution, and more and bigger wildfires, we need more trees and unmanaged/undamaged forests now, more than ever before.

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