ALBANY – As wildfires continue to rage in California, Oregon and Washington, the impact of climate change is considered by many to be the pivotal factor. Nevertheless, the impact of Japanese mini submarines, balloons, an anthropomorphic bear, unintended consequences, and human actions should not be ignored.
California fire officials said this week more than 3.4 million acres have burned, destroying thousands of homes and structures and taking at least 35 lives. To date, there have been 7,900 separate fires reported.
In Oregon more than 500,000 people have been evacuated, and dozens are missing with fires there devouring in excess of 950,000 acres. In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee reported a week ago fire had burned approximately 627,000 acres.
In the 1880s, the United States Army was put in charge of administering Yellowstone National Park. When wildfires in 1910 burned millions of acres in Idaho and Montana, the concept of “fighting” fires was born. It would evolve into a policy of putting out all fires. Native Americans and private landowners could be fined for burning on their own land.
People living in forested areas have always had a realization of how devastating a wildfire can be. However, those on the West Coast have an unusual historical perspective ingrained in their psyche. Just as baby boomers have memories of sheltering under their desks in case of nuclear attack, residents of the West Coast have shared memories of preparing for potential firestorms ignited by Japanese attack.
On Feb. 23, 1942, a Japanese minisub fired from 16 to 25 rounds from its deck gun at the Ellwood Oil Field west of Santa Barbara, Calif., initiating the first attack on the North American mainland. Little damage was done. However, the repercussions in California were massive, adding to the fear of a coastal invasion. Two days later this fear intensified during the “Battle of Los Angeles” when air raid sirens sounded at 2:25 a.m,. leading to more than 1,400 anti-aircraft shells being fired at “reported” aircraft. No aircraft was evident. Unfortunately, during the more than two-hour “attack,” five civilians died: three in car accidents during the chaos and two from heart attacks.
These two events culminated in President Roosevelt interring 110,000 people of Japanese heritage, 11,000 of German ancestry, and 3,000 with Italian ancestry until the order was rescinded in 1945.
A release by Japanese naval forces of more than 9,000 fire balloons created an intense fear of wildfires along the coast. In an effort to offset the demoralizing effect of these threats, the USDA Fire Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program (CFFP) in 1942. Civilians were mobilized in an effort to protect trees. Lumber was a valued wartime commodity.
At the time, the animated Disney character “Bambi” was extremely popular and had been used for anti-fire poster. This poster was such a success that another animal was determined to be the best ambassador for a fire prevention campaign. On Aug. 2, 1944, a bear was introduced to fill this role. “Smokey Bear” would become synonymous with forest fire prevention.
Unfortunately, Smokey may have done his job too well. The idea of fire suppression was so strong that for many, all fire was equated with being bad for the forest. This led in many instances to the prevention of fire fulfilling it’s needed role in the forest.
IN 1931 Herbert Lee Stoddard published, “The Bobwhite Quail: Its Habits, Preservation, and Increase.” Stoddard argued that successful wildlife management required more than setting seasons and regulations. It required active management of natural processes, the most controversial being the use of fire to maintain the longleaf pine forests in the Red Hill region of Georgia. This ran against the practices of the day when foresters felt that fire would be detrimental to reforestation if reintroduced into the areas that had been destroyed by the logging practices of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. State and federal agencies of the day developed policies of strict fire suppression.
Stoddard was among the first to call them out on the practice, arguing fire should be harnessed as a tool in ecological management. When he presented his initial studies, his peers literally laughed at him.
Today, Stoddard’s philosophy of fire as a necessary tool in the forest has been widely accepted in the Southeastern states with the region taking on a leadership role in the practice. In 1958 he and others who believed in this philosophy founded Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee, Fla. It was the first research center in the nation focused on fire ecology. Fire-based ecology uses prescribed, or control burns, to reduce wildfire hazards by reducing fuel loads on the ground as well as clearing downed and dead trees.
In the early 1970s, Tall Timbers began to focus on the issue of using a fire regime in the western United States. They observed the rebounding of forests after wildfires and determined through experiments that prescribed burns would be a safe and effective management tool. For a variety of reasons, though, the practice has not been broadly embraced there. Data show that the federal government has continued to spend more money on fire suppression than prescribed burns. Data from the National Interagency Fire Center indicates that the Forest Service has averaged using prescribed burns on an average of only 2.2 million acres a year, or 11% of the land managed by the agency.
In California, the impact of these policies is evident and key, considering that the Federal government owns 57 percent of the land in the state. California owns only 3 percent, with the other 40 percent in private ownership.
This does not absolve the state from being part of the overall problem, however. Fires create smoke, and the control of smoke is an integral part of any prescribed burn plan. California state regulations related to air quality make it difficult to effectively burn where fire is most needed and would be an effective deterrent.
State regulations restricting timber harvesting have made it extremely difficult to manage the state’s forests. President Clinton was successful in restricting the development of new roads in the national forests, making it difficult to access potential timber for harvest.
Thomas McClintock represents the 4th Congressional District in northern California, encompassing Yosemite National Park.
“Time and again, we see vivid boundaries between the young, healthy, growing forests managed by the state and private landowners, and the choked, dying, or burned federal lands,” McClintock said. “There’s an old adage that the excess timber comes out of the forest one way or another. It’s either carried out, or it burns out.” McClintock has expressed support of the Resilient Federal Forest Act, a bill that would stop the practice of taking fire prevention funding and using it instead for fire suppression.
Ironically, the use of fire suppression in California has resulted in creating a larger carbon footprint. It is estimated that each forest fire releases 5.2 metric tons of greenhouse gases, or the equivalent of 1.1 million passenger cars annually.
In 2018 President Trump issued Executive Order 13855, directing the Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote active management of America’s forests to reduce wildfire risk with specific targets for actions.
Interior officials were required to:
♦ Treat 750,000 acres of public land to reduce fuel loads (controlled burns);
♦ Treat 500,000 acres of public lands to protect water quality and mitigate severe flooding and erosion risk arising from forest fires;
♦ Reduce vegetation through forest health treatments by offering for sale 600 million board feet of timber from public lands.
In California this accounted for reducing the fuel load on 38,837 acres and improved the water quality and erosion risk on 4,125 acres. Approximately 16 million board feet of timber were sold. It also resulted in 1,157 miles of roads being improved for access in forest areas. In Georgia, this accounted for reducing the fuel load on 8,741 acres and 326 miles of road improvement.
Although it is encouraging to see this step toward the utilization of a fire-based system of management, the scope of the problem remains daunting. The impact of EO 13855 in California impacted .002 percent of the land under control by the DOI.
In 2019, wildfire activity was significantly less than prior years and the 10-year annual average, as there were 48,484 wildfires that burned 4.57 million acres. The 10-year annual average has been approximately 60,000 wildfires burning 6.7 million acres, but in 2018, more than 52,000 wildfires burned 8.5 million acres of federal, state, tribal and private lands.
With the 2020 fire season is off to a dramatic start, it is not surprising that the raging wildfires have taken on significant political overtones. Visiting California Monday, President Trump blamed poor management practices, downplaying the impact of climate change. Former Vice President Joe Biden responded later, “If you give a climate denier four more years in the White House, why would we be surprised that we have an America ablaze?”