The perfect storm: Oxygen, fuel and an ignition

My wife and I lost our home in Paradise, California to the Camp Fire. We were fortunate that we had our other home in Chester, California. Many were not so fortunate and our hearts and prayers go out for them.

Camp Fire burned more than 153,000 acres, 240 square miles, and resulted in the death of 86 people and loss of nearly 19,000 structures.

Immediately after the fire, the lawyers began to circle to quickly blame PG&E for the holocaust and gain a bundle of money. Maybe the utility company’s actions did cause the spark of ignition. That will be discovered through time. But were there other events that preceded the spark which shared the blame?

It takes three things for a fire: Oxygen, fuel and an ignition. There is another “fire triangle” governing the behavior of wildfire: Weather, topography and, again, fuel. Of these variables, which is most controllable by humans? It is, obviously, the fuel component. Ignitions are not all man caused or avoidable. But the resulting fire behavior can be altered by managing the fuels.
The Camp Fire was the “perfect storm” with almost unprecedented winds and abundant, highly flammable fuels. Where the ignition occurred was in the worst possible location to complete the ultimate “fire triangle.”

Strong northeast winds were developed by high pressure over the Great Basin with low pressure off the coast. In our Sierra Nevada mountains these are called “Mono Winds.” Further north they are named “Chinook Winds” and in Southern California they are the infamous “Santa Ana Winds.” These blew down the Feather River canyon then across to Concow and into Paradise bringing an abundance of flame- loving oxygen.

Early in his first administration, President Clinton, bowing to the well funded but ecologically ignorant “Environmental Lobby,” decided that the National Forests should be managed as National Parks. No forest management. This decision was made without an analysis of the potential adverse consequences. This is a pattern too often followed in the legislation development process as no legislator wants their proposed laws to be criticized. Once the new law is on the books, further analysis is eliminated.

Another example, passed without analysis of adverse consequences, is the Clean Air Act which is largely responsible for the lack of wildland fuel control measures. The result? The catastrophic brush fed fires that regularly devastate Southern California communities. Note that these fires continue to grow in severity as the brush fields increase in density, age and decadence.

Also, without analysis of possible adverse consequences, the Endangered Species Act ensures that there will always be endangered species. When one species is favored by habitat manipulation (or the lack thereof) others are often adversely impacted.

As a Cal Forestry graduate, I spent 31 years with the US Forest Service. I was a District Ranger on two National Forests and finally the Ecosystem Manager for the Lassen National Forest. I used the “adverse consequences analysis” process on all alternatives under consideration for significant environmentally altering treatments. Had this process been applied before political decisions were made, many subsequent devastating environmental, social and economic effects could have been avoided.

In the mid-1800s, when Europeans moved into the Sierra Nevada range, they found an open forest with less than 10 percent of the number of trees per acre than currently occupy the mixed conifer regions of our National Forest lands. John Muir, noted conservationist, called this the “range of light” for the sunlight that streamed though the open forest dominated by ponderosa and sugar pines. Oaks, flowers, grasses, forbs and bushes were able to thrive in the inviting openness of the forest floor. There was a greater variety of wildlife then than now. More water was available for streams and meadows also.

Light ground fires once freely burned throughout the summer months. These were ignited by lightening or intentionally started by the native people for maintenance of their fire dependent ecosystems and lifestyle. Here deer flourished on the brush sprouts and elk on the abundant grasses. Forest debris remained at low levels as whenever there was a large enough volume of ground fuels to carry a fire the frequent ignition events would sweep through and clean it up. Summer air was often smoky but crown fires were extremely rare.

These frequent light fires consumed most of the fire sensitive, but more shade tolerant, white fir and incense cedar seedlings. When ground fires were suppressed these tree species formed an understory too dense to allow the light demanding pines to reproduce. Too dense, also, for the variety of light demanding shrubs, flowers and grasses to exist, as well. So, over the past 170 years our forest ecosystems shifted from open patches of large trees to multi-storied, dense forests with continuous “ladders” of highly combustible fuels. These “fire ladders” now reach from the ground to the top of the largest trees.

Then came the emotionally charged, non-scientific decision that stopped the thinning and forest fuel cleanup necessary to help return our forests to the conditions that had persisted for thousands of years under the management of the native peoples. This same philosophy has allowed many of our National Parks to shift to unsustainable ecological conditions as well.

The 152,000 acre Rough Fire which burned through the Sierra National Forest and Sequoia National Park in 2015 is only one testament to this wrong-headed approach to “saving our forests.” That one didn’t make many headlines, for obvious reasons.

This past year the 230,000 acre Carr Fire started in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. It burned into the City of Redding to the east and into the Trinity National Forest on the west. This was followed by the Herz Fire of 46,000 acres and the Delta Fire of 37,000 acres. These three fires burned together to consume some 313,000 acres in the upper Sacramento River Watershed: about 490 square miles! Also in 2018, the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in California history, burned through 460,000 acres, about 716 square miles! Mostly of your Mendocino National Forest lands.

The ecosystem was not the only victim of this early 1990s decision but also the loss of most of California’s sawmills and bio-energy plants. We now receive most of our wood products from Canada … and burn our own forests. More trees die each year than are harvested. The accumulation of dead trees increases each year adding more fuel for the wildland fires. At last count, there are some 129,000,000 dead trees in our forest, the result of too many trees for the available water.

Also, since the fatal decision, numerous small mountain communities have lost their primary source of jobs and income. Our forests are in desperate need of cleanup and thinning but we do not have the human resource willing and able to undertake this monumental task. The logging families of old, who were willing to work long, strenuous hours each day in remote areas, are nearly all gone. When questioned about what the mountain families would do when they lost their jobs because of his decision, President Clinton responded that they should learn to use computers and move to the cities. How many city folk would now be willing to reverse this trend? We need more woods workers so that we can do with fewer fire fighters.

How about resurrecting the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s? It worked then, how about now? Maybe some of our vast prison population could do with some good, clean air and exercise in the woods. Pumping iron behind bars seems a vast waste of energy, considering the desperate need for human energy in our forests.