Little has changed to prevent our next conflagration

Plumas County did it again! For weeks the county endured the largest fire in the state — even country! Not since the Chips Fire has Plumas County had such a distinction. The Walker Fire had a fire fighting population exceeding the size of most of our communities. People from all over the state and further were part of this large and successful effort at containing a forest fire that burned few structures, but a lot of ground. Our gratitude is to all who took part in this massive effort.

But the millions of dollars spent (>$36MM) did little to improve the situation of the county relative to the threat of wildfire in its forests. As a forester for 50 years, I have watched the federal emphasis change from timber, then to wildlife, now to wildfire (58 percent of budget spent on fire suppression). The money spent is money gone, and only 42 percent of the budget goes into everything else that the Forest Service must do.

I do remember that $60 million of the $90 million spent on helicopters in the Chips Fire did little to nothing to stop the Chips Fire. After weeks of air drops, it was aggressive firefighting in areas where the vegetation had been managed that stopped that fire.

Unfortunately, little in our government’s directions has changed to prevent the next conflagration. Since 2017, huge dollars are flowing into wildfire, but the focus continues to be firefighting rather than modifying the fuels or helping citizens to prepare for wildfire, which will allow rural residents to continue to live in forested regions. We know that we must increase the pace and scale and scope of our pre-fire efforts, but governmental change is so slow that the reliance on the US Forest Service or CalFire or Plumas County to increase the pace and scale of vegetation management efforts may be misplaced.

A paradigm shift is needed if our homes and small mountain towns are to survive. Staying on course will continue to dump millions of dollars into wildfire suppression efforts to support more firefighting tools and more fire fighters, but the results will continue to be the same as in the past, with thousands of acres burned and little preparation for the fire next time, while most of the dollars spent do little for our local economies.

We are frightened of the possibilities of destruction by wildfire and are seeing that fire protection will not come without personal efforts. Fortunately, hundreds of Plumas County citizens are showing the way through the development of Fire Wise Communities. Non-government-led efforts through the now-defunct Quincy Library Group have expanded into current work led by the Fire Safe Council, which have thinned and will continue to thin thousands of acres surrounding our communities. New initiatives continue to develop, with scores of volunteers and dedicated fire fighters joining in the Plumas Underburn Cooperative, actively working to protect neighborhoods through prescribed fire.

Improving forest health and livability does not need to continue to be the money sink of fire suppression. The Sierra Institute in Taylorsville is working to develop economic answers through biomass plant development and woodyard creation for a panoply of potential products. Industrial development of new products shows promise, from using small trees in the development of mass timber construction to the potential for cellulosic nanofibers and cost-reducing efforts of torrefaction. New tools and new handling methods being developed will make the use of cost-effective small tree utilization a reality.

As more areas are thinned for the first time, questions arise as to how to maintain such fire protection in a changing and dynamic forest. Fuel reduction will need to take new forms as forests continue to grow and develop. The challenges will continue to mount.

The way to best respond to our problems is to change leadership, since morale and direction come from the top. What is needed are fresh directions, which can be acquired by electing representatives who are focused on answers to the difficulties we face. We have two such people currently running for offices. Audrey Denney (June 2020 Congressional District 1) has made forests and economic progress of our mountain towns her top priority. With life experience in farming and degrees in agricultural education, she is the answer to our lack of decent representation in Congress. She knows that for us, it all starts with the forest. So too will Elizabeth Betancourt (November 2019 State Assembly) be a welcome change to our state government, as an agriculturalist with an extensive background in water policy. Feather River watersheds create a huge contribution to the state, but receive little recognition from current leadership. Wouldn’t it be nice to have people in government with knowledge and commitment looking out for our interests, rather than in enriching themselves?

We will still be decades in developing the programs and defenses needed to protect ourselves from being burned out, but we must step out now to find new answers. The alternative to changing nothing is a long-term lose-lose. We know that fires will continue to start, but we must give them no place to go within our communities and neighborhoods. We know that forests will continue to ignite, but having plans for forest thinning and vegetation modification and product development will reduce the need for expensive suppression efforts that rob us of funds to develop more fuel-wise programs.

I am hoping that within the next decades, we will have moved from the Big Fire Fighting focus into prescribed fire and forest management, which recognizes that trees grow, and that we need to make our places in the forest secure through fuel modification. The continuance of small towns may be dependent on that change.