In the war on wildfire, California turns to the military

Martin Kuz/The Christian Science Monitor
Members of the California National Guard work to remove small trees and undergrowth near Colfax, California, on Aug. 15, 2019, as part of the state's expanded wildfire prevention strategy.
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Wildfires killed more than 100 people and burned 1.8 million acres in California last year – a pair of grim state records. This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom has assigned about 100 soldiers with the National Guard to assist with prevention efforts to protect 200 vulnerable communities.

In the town of Colfax, where soldiers are creating a firebreak in the surrounding woodlands, residents welcome the Guard’s presence. “We need as many boots on the ground as we can get,” says Marnie Mendoza, the mayor pro tem.

Why We Wrote This

Boots on the ground before a disaster strikes, instead of after? That’s the thinking involved in deploying the California National Guard to act as a preventive force.

Factors contributing to California’s megafires range from fire suppression and forest overgrowth to climate change. “We didn’t reach this point with fires overnight,” says Mike Mohler, a state fire official. “So we look at what we’re doing at these sites as the beginning.”

The devastation has prompted environmental groups to reassess the potential benefits of thinning and prescribed burns to heal ailing forests. “The old approaches haven’t got us to where we want to be,” says David Edelson with the Nature Conservancy.

The renewed emphasis on sustainable forestry has led to a cautious truce between conservationists and loggers. “The industry has sometimes had a hard time explaining what it does for the environment,” says Rich Gordon, head of the state’s forestry association. “But [the governor is] showing that it’s part of the solution.”

James Nelson deployed to Iraq in 2004 as an artilleryman with the Army. He saw fierce fighting and lost close friends during his one-year tour, and when he reflects on the experience, he wonders what the war achieved.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Nelson, now a sergeant first class in the California National Guard, has deployed to the Sierra Nevada foothills about 50 miles north of the state capital of Sacramento. Beneath a canopy of ponderosa and sugar pines, Douglas firs, and black oaks, he and 20 other soldiers work to remove underbrush and dead trees, assisting state crews to thin forests of the fuel that feeds wildfires. He describes the mission as more purposeful than his combat tour.

“Over there in Iraq, you’re protecting each other, but it’s hard to see where you’re making a difference,” Mr. Nelson says. “Here you can see cause and effect. It feels like we’re accomplishing something.”

Why We Wrote This

Boots on the ground before a disaster strikes, instead of after? That’s the thinking involved in deploying the California National Guard to act as a preventive force.

He talked on a recent morning over the high whine of chainsaws and a wood chipper’s guttural thudding. On a leaf-strewn slope in front of him, soldiers clad in yellow and red safety gear cleared shrubs, bushes, and small trees; behind him rose another hillside where they had thinned the undergrowth in previous weeks.

Across the country, the National Guard typically arrives in communities during or after natural disasters, whether wildfires in the West, hurricanes in the South, or floods in the Midwest.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has chosen a different tack, ordering about 100 members of the Guard to aid the state’s preventive efforts to reduce the risk of and devastation caused by wildfires. His strategy underscores the severity of the threat and, in a broader sense, illuminates an emerging cooperation between environmental groups and timber interests to restore forests.

Six of the 10 most destructive fires in California history occurred in the past two years, including the state’s deadliest blaze in and around the town of Paradise last fall. The Camp fire claimed 86 lives and almost 19,000 homes, businesses, and other structures. Smoke and ash from the inferno blanketed cities as far away as San Francisco, 170 miles to the south.

California will spend $1 billion over the next five years to bolster its fight against fires intensified by climate change and years of withering drought – a fight complicated by the deep penetration of home and commercial development into woodlands.

Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency on wildfires in March to accelerate the work. Since then, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, has targeted 35 areas for fuel reduction by next spring as officials seek to protect some 200 cities and towns considered most vulnerable to wildfires. The projects cover 90,000 acres and involve removal of dead trees, clearing undergrowth, creating firebreaks, and prescribed burning.

CalFire crews, private contractors, and the state’s conservation corps supply the bulk of the manpower. Still, for people in Colfax, a town of about 2,000 residents, the presence of Mr. Nelson and his fellow soldiers in the nearby hills provides an extra measure of reassurance.

“We don’t want Paradise happening here,” says Marnie Mendoza, Colfax’s mayor pro tem. She offered a war analogy to frame the ongoing struggle with wildfire. “We need as many boots on the ground as we can get to help save forests and save lives.”

Discarding old approaches

Fire officials and researchers ascribe California’s new era of megafires to a confluence of factors. The policy of suppression – snuffing out wildfires as quickly as possible – has prevailed nationwide on federal, state, and private lands since soon after the founding of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905.

Meanwhile, the forest service and state governments have enforced tight restrictions on tree harvesting in the West since the onset of the “timber wars” that stretched from the 1970s into the ’90s, when environmentalists clashed with the logging industry over spotted owl habitat and clear-cutting.

One legacy of those strategies exists in the form of forests choked by overgrowth and lacking natural fuel breaks to prevent the rapid spread of fire. Climate change has compounded the problem by imposing a prolonged drought that, along with a bark beetle epidemic, killed an estimated 147 million trees in California over the past decade.

The dead trees add to a surplus of fuel and contribute to a wildfire threat that state officials rate as “very high” or “extreme” across 25 million acres of woodlands and grasslands. “Whether you believe in climate change or not,” says Mike Mohler, a CalFire deputy director, “the conditions on the ground are causing fires to explode.”

He motioned toward the hillside where the soldiers worked on what will be an 850-acre fuel break, a cleared tract intended to slow a fire’s advance and give crews a chance to contain the flames. “We didn’t reach this point with fires overnight. So we look at what we’re doing at these sites as the beginning,” he says. “We have to maintain and hold this ground.”

The increased density and dryness of forests, grasslands, and shrubland has coincided with untamed residential growth in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, the areas where development meets nature. Many wildfire researchers judge that trend – and the failure of most owners to safeguard their homes against fire – as the primary reason for the breadth of destruction.

More than a quarter of the state’s population – 11 million people – live in fire-prone areas, and from 2000 to 2013, three-quarters of the homes destroyed by wildfire in California fell within the WUI. Yet even after the recent blazes that ravaged Paradise, Santa Rosa, and other cities, a strong desire to rebuild has taken root, as homes and businesses sprout anew.

California’s wildfires yielded a pair of grim state records in 2018 by killing more than 100 people and scorching 1.8 million acres. The devastation of the past few years, amplified by manmade forces, has prompted environmental groups to reassess the potential benefits of thinning and prescribed burns to heal ailing forests.

“The old approaches haven’t got us to where we want to be,” says David Edelson, the Sierra Nevada project director for the Nature Conservancy.

Two years ago, the nonprofit joined the Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative, an alliance formed by the state and the U.S. Forest Service that includes environmental and timber industry groups. The coalition has set out to restore 2.4 million acres of federal forestland in the Sierra Nevada through thinning, prescribed burns, and limited logging.

Mr. Edelson, a veteran of the timber wars, regards Governor Newsom’s plans at the state level as an extension of the collaborative spirit that inspired the Tahoe initiative. “The governor recognizes this is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” he says. “There is absolutely growing support for better management of our forests and better protection for our communities.”

The coalition’s partners have coordinated a 30,000-acre restoration project in a watershed west of Lake Tahoe. A wildfire ripped through the overgrown Tahoe National Forest in 2014 and loosened topsoil that heavy rains later washed into a reservoir. Dredging the clogged lake cost $5 million, and Marie Davis, a consulting geologist on the watershed project, explains that thinning the forest and conducting prescribed burns could avert a recurrence.

“We have to make a cultural shift away from both the Smokey Bear days of putting every fire out and from the anti-logging days of saying the removal of any tree is bad,” she says. “That’s giving us bigger and bigger fires.”

A cautious truce

An estimated 15 million acres of the state’s forestlands and grasslands need restoration to varying degrees. Christina Restaino, a forest ecologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, has studied whether thinning coupled with prescribed burns can improve forest health amid California’s drought and bark beetle infestation.

She has found that, in areas cleared of undergrowth and small trees, less competition for water – or “fewer straws in the cup,” in her phrasing – boosts survival rates of mature trees, which are more resistant to fire. Other research shows that thinning small trees and tall shrubs reduces the amount of so-called ladder fuels that can propel flames into the canopy, where fire moves faster and becomes harder to extinguish.

“We’re never going to realistically thin enough of our forests – they’re too vast,” Ms. Restaino says. But she asserts that underbrush removal paired with prescribed burns can resuscitate forests and lower wildfire risk. “We have to reimagine what healthy forests look like and then actively manage them. We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing. People are dying, not just trees.”

The renewed emphasis on sustainable forestry has led to a cautious truce between environmental groups and the logging industry. In March, a conservation trust and a lumber company brokered an $11.7 million land swap that bans development and logging in a redwood forest south of San Jose and places strict logging rules on another expanse of redwoods 40 miles away.

The California Forestry Association represents the state’s timber industry and belongs to the Tahoe initiative. Rich Gordon, the group’s president and chief executive officer, suggests that the magnitude of megafires has pushed environmentalists and loggers to find common cause.

“California was sitting on a ticking time bomb with our forests,” he says. “But we didn’t really know how big the bomb was.”

The state’s five-year wildfire prevention plan subsidizes removal of vegetation and small trees – a sweetener for companies to harvest materials with little commercial value – and loosens tree-harvesting regulations on private land. Mr. Gordon credits the governor with bringing timber interests into the public discussion of managing forests.

“The industry has sometimes had a hard time explaining itself and what it does for the environment,” Mr. Gordon says. “But he’s showing that it’s part of the solution.”

Some environmentalists remain opposed to any logging on public or private lands, and likewise, there are researchers who question the efficacy of relatively small-scale thinning projects given the size of the state’s forests. At the same time, a study last year found that most researchers generally agree on the need to clear undergrowth in connection with prescribed burning to eliminate fuel.

The coming months of wildfire will offer a test of the state’s more aggressive tactics. In the hills near Colfax, the National Guard soldiers work eight to 10 hours a day, the buzz of their chainsaws filling the forest. Lt. Jonathan Green, the unit’s commander, observed that one measure of the project’s success would be silence.

“The irony is, if what we’re doing here works, you’ll never hear about this place,” he says. “It won’t be like Paradise. Let’s hope that’s the case.”

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