When I suggested to Andrew that I write a guest blog on the subject of wildfires, I wouldn’t have imagined that there would still be wildfires roaring in December.
Indeed, this year has been truly devastating on the West coast. Over 5 million acres have burnt in Oregon and California. Wildfires remained active in Colorado into late-October. And new fires sprung up in eastern California in mid-November. For a period in late-summer and early-fall, all the National Forest lands in California and Oregon were closed.
Hikers and backpackers obviously have a love for forest land and wilderness. Generally, we have been lucky enough not to be directly impacted, although there have been occasions where hikers have had to outrun wildfires. Regardless, trails now need to be rebuilt and trail-side communities have lost vital income.
Our forests and rural communities are in a crisis and all the stakeholders need to come together to support reasonable solutions.
- Prescribed burns
- Forest thinning
- Building fire-resilient communities
- Managing areas of forests as a sustainable resource to support the country’s economic needs.
Sure, there are complications: Wilderness areas pose a specific challenge, lack of infrastructure prevents mechanical thinning, and prescribed burns are often too risky because of the same extreme fuel load they are targeting to reduce.
Dave Mihalic, the Superintendent Yosemite National Park from 1999-2003, summed up the situation well:
“Many people seem to believe they can have un-cut, Fire-dependent forests that shouldn’t burn, and should never be cut. But that belief only continues to build up fuel loads, and then they are surprised when forests burn as wildfires and turn into conflagrations.”
In short: We can’t wait to solve the climate crisis and hope it solves the wildfire problem. The climate crisis is just another reason we need to act now, or wildfires will continue, and they will grow in size and frequency.
So what can YOU do?
As a backpacker, I reached out to Andrew to look to garner support from the backpacking community. We have created a group of citizens from all walks of life and views, but all of whom have an overriding desire to help build and maintain healthy forests and support the rural communities that rely both on the forests, either directly or through the support of tourism.
Our goal is simple: To pressure groups, whether state or federal, private or public, to urgently move on sensible forest management.
You can find us at the following places:
It’s truly hard to grasp the impacts that these fires have. From the loss of lives, destroyed communities, air quality impacts, loss of renewable resources, and huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
This year the CO2 emissions from forest fires will be 110 million metric tons. That’s 10x as large as the savings in CO2 from the California residential solar program! The longer-term impacts are also tremendous. Now that the fires are just about out for the year, the assessment and restoration can start. This includes analysis of the impacted burns areas, restabilizing areas to prevent runoff into watersheds, and rebuilding infrastructure, and communities. This will take many years.
Possibly the most moving and poignant firsthand account of the wildfires I’ve read is from Dave Daley, he is a rancher in Northern California – you can read his account around the bear fire here.
Some Background Information
There are many reasons (some well understood, some less well understood) why these fires are getting worse. First, the fire season is getting longer and the climate is getting drier, due to climate change. But forests have also become unnaturally dense too. What we recognize today as common dense pine forests covering the landscape are the result of over 100 years of fire suppression, a policy enacted and supported by the Forest Service, after the big burn of 1910.
As a result of this unnatural fire suppression, these dense forests were less able to adapt to drought years, making them more susceptible to disease. Making things worse, Pine Beetles have left millions of trees dead in Colorado and California, the understory is rarely cleared, and there are so few natural fires allowed to burn. As a result, when there is a fire, they are hotter, more intense, and much more difficult to control.
At the same time that forests have become more of a tinderbox, more people have moved into the wilderness-urban interface. As the population grows and cities become increasingly expensive, there are more new homes built closer to forested areas that are at risk from wildfires – placing more communities at risk.
Finally, legislation introduced in the ’70s around the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) have not kept pace with the need to manage forests. Thus, legislation designed to protect the environment is ironically having the opposite impact.
There are some pretty staggering bureaucratic barriers to the USFS on this front. They estimate that for every 1,000 acres of land they need to treat, they must now complete over 500 pages of paperwork. To put this in perspective, they have over 25,000,000 acres in urgent need of treatment.
Also, even though logging has dropped dramatically on the west coast, national consumption has continued to increase, requiring more imports of timber from outside the United States, which comes at a higher overall carbon cost.
I hope this has been enlightening, but even more importantly I hope it inspires you to act quickly!
Thanks for your support – and if you have any questions, please reach out to us by emailing me: [email protected]