Firefighting Unions Can Help Fix Forestry Mismanagement

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
September 16, 2020

Firefighting Unions Can Help Fix Forestry Mismanagement

What we quaintly refer to as “super fires” have incinerated nearly 5,000 square miles of California’s forests so far this year. In response, Governor Newsom has declared he has “no more patience for climate deniers.” But it isn’t climate change that caused these superfires. It was negligent forestry.

When it comes to facts that matter on the issue of our burning forests, perhaps Newsom is the one who is in denial. Because when Newsom denounces “climate deniers,” he denies the following far more pertinent facts about wildfires and climate:

  • The timber industry in California has been cut to a small fraction of what it was in 1990 in terms of employment and board feet of timber harvested. In 1990, 6.0 billion board feet were harvested from California’s forests, today the harvest rarely exceeds 1.5 billion board feet.
  • Dense, overgrown forests result in unhealthy trees, because the increased number of trees are competing for the same amount of sunlight, water and soil nutrients. This is the reason so many of them cannot resist disease and infestations, not climate change.
  • Year after year, millions of acre-feet of snow and rainfall on these dense tree canopies and either evaporate immediately, or are sucked up by the overgrown, water-stressed biomass as soon as they hit the ground. Far less water makes it into the aquifers and rivers as a result.
  • The overgrown forests are not only packing up to ten times more fuel than what is historically normal, but because these trees aren’t adapted to being packed so close together, half of them are dead or dying, which means they are tinder dry.

Any honest mainstream journalist, if there are any left, needs to ask Governor Newsom one simple question:

“Under which conditions would be a lightning strike be more likely to cause a catastrophic fire: on a grove of stressed and dying trees, dried out and packed 200 per acre, on a 75-degree day, or on a grove of healthy trees, moist and dispersed 20 per acre on an 85-degree day?”

A child can answer this question, but perhaps Gavin Newsom isn’t interested in the truth.

The Role of California’s Firefighter Unions

When examining the impact of unionizing firefighters in California, there is little evidence that the quality of services have suffered. Problems arise, however, when considering the capacity of California’s firefighters. The super fires this year that have stretched California’s firefighting resources beyond their capacity are only an example of what could be necessary in the coming years. California may need to put in place a firefighting infrastructure many times greater than what we have today.

This is why, for example, there may be troubling long-term consequences to union opposition to innovations such as those being explored in the City of Placentia. In response to Placentia’s decision to replace defined benefit pensions with 401A defined contribution plans, California’s professional firefighters are supporting Assembly Bill 2967, which will prohibit California’s cities and counties from exiting their pension systems. But it is simply impossible to significantly expand California’s firefighter headcount when the average full-time firefighter in California costs taxpayers well over $200,000 per year in pay and benefits. California’s professional firefighter unions are urged to recognize that what is needed today, with shrinking tax revenues and potentially multiplying threats to public safety, are not incremental but quantum increases to firefighting capacity.

To some extent the infrastructure to cost-effectively multiply firefighting capacity already exists. During fire season, CalFire enlists the services of temporary workers, prisoners and trained volunteers to help along the fire lines. These programs need to be greatly expanded, and they need to be extended to preventive activity. Also, a mid-tier of firefighting personnel needs to be established in every city and county. Between full-time unionized firefighters and the ranks of prisoners and seasonal workers, California’s cities and counties need to recruit thousands of highly trained, year-round, on-call volunteers and part-time firefighters.

If there are ever conflagrations in urban areas instead of in relatively unpopulated forests, expanded firefighting resources will save even more lives lives and property. The example of Placentia is insignificant on its own, but represents something that in the interests of public safety should be encouraged, not fought.

The other area where California’s firefighting unions have an opportunity, if not an obligation, to redirect their political priorities is with respect to forest thinning. It is difficult to imagine a category of fire prevention that even approaches the scale of this challenge. There are over 50,000 square miles of forest and chaparral in California that require a fundamental, and very labor-intensive, shift in how they are managed.

It is impossible to engage in fire suppression, and impose extreme restrictions on timber harvesting, without also having an aggressive program of forest thinning. For decades, this catastrophic mistake constituted California’s forest management policy. California’s politically powerful firefighter unions can play a decisive role in lobbying for quick and meaningful corrective action.

The prevailing challenge when allocating resources to thin California’s forests is the same as that facing local elected officials who want to expand firefighting capacity in their cities and counties – how to innovate in order to accomplish more with finite budgets. California’s firefighting unions need to take the lead in encouraging creative ways to put more people and equipment in the field at less cost.

How can trained volunteers, seasonal and part-time workers, prisoners, and – one can only hope – legions of able bodied homeless people, be put into California’s forests and chaparral and effectively remove excess growth? How can California’s Dept. of Forestry, CalFire, the Dept. of Corrections, and what’s left of California’s timber industry offer resources, equipment, and supervision to make this happen? How can this job be done for a few billion dollars, in a few years, instead of costing trillions, and never get done?

Effectively coping with these issues offer an inspiring challenge to California’s professional firefighter unions. They have a chance to provide needed leadership at a critical time. It’s not the temperature, it’s the tinder.

How California’s Forests Turned Into Tinderboxes

For over 20 million years, forests existed in California at a much lower density than they are today. These forests were healthy and abundant with wildlife, and they stayed healthy through climate cycles that included droughts and so-called mega-droughts that lasted a century or more.

That all changed starting around 1850 when American settlers began logging operations that left vast clear cut areas. The second-growth forests that filled these clear cut areas had a higher tree density, and this unnatural response to the original clear cuts is where the problems began.

Natural fires, usually caused by lightning strikes, probably would have burned through 2nd and 3rd growth forests, with the hardier trees surviving to restore the original ecosystems, but over the past several decades fire suppression tactics had become highly effective and were aggressively practiced. Fire ceased to be a significant source of natural thinning. Forestry officials and private landowners tried to do controlled burns, but ran into too much bureaucracy to ever do it at anywhere near the necessary scale.

The problems of overstocked forests magnified in the 1990s when logging operations throughout the Western United States came under attack from environmentalists. While logging practices needed to evolve, cutting logging activity to a fraction of what it had been for over a century caused additional density. For decades now, annual growth has far exceeded harvests.

Unhealthy, unnaturally dense forests. Far fewer smaller, natural forest fires. Almost no logging activity. It doesn’t take a genius to know what comes next.

Forestry experts including some environmentalists have been warning politicians about the fire hazards in the forests, urgently, for well over 20 years. But effective forest thinning has been prevented by environmentalist backed over-regulation.

If Gov. Newsom is in “denial” about any of this, he might explain: Why is it, if we knew this was an urgent problem, that California’s forests are still twice as dense, or more, than they were for the last 20 million years?

“Climate Change” Policies Are Misanthropic and Futile

Whenever there’s a wildfire, Newsom and all the others in denial over their epic policy failures, come shouting “climate change.” They have the audacity to tell us to turn our thermostats up to 78 degrees and refrain from using electric appliances, and they claim these fires are evidence of why this is necessary. They embark on a “renewables mandate” that jacks utility prices up to the highest in the nation in exchange for unreliable power.

More than anything else, what Newsom and all the rest of these politicians who want California to set a “climate example” to the world are in denial of is their own misanthropy. They know perfectly well that California only emits one percent of the world’s CO2. They know as well that China and India are not about to stop using fossil fuel to grow their economies. They know that fossil fuel accounts for 85 percent of global energy production, with hydroelectric and nuclear power accounting for another 11 percent. All renewables account for only four percent of global energy production. Four percent.

Although one often wonders, Newsom is smart enough to figure out, based on readily available and indisputable data, that if everyone in the world, per capita, used half as much energy as Americans do, global energy production would have to double. And it will. And for the next 20-30 years, fossil fuel is going to account for a large portion of that.

Someday, probably within the lifetime of most people alive today, there will be a series of breakthroughs in energy technology. Fusion power. Satellite solar power stations. Direct synthesis of atmospheric CO2 into liquid fuel. Who knows? But until that time, the only reason to impoverish the lives of ordinary Californians in the name of the “climate crisis” is so rich and powerful people like Gavin Newsom can get even richer and even more powerful.

Once this horrific fire season comes to an end, there is just one thing Gavin Newsom should be doing as follow up. He needs to figure out how California’s forests are going to be rapidly thinned from, using the Sierra Nevada as an example, 200 or more trees per acre, down to the historical norm of 40 trees or less per acre. No forest management solutions are perfect. But in search of perfection, we engineered a cataclysm. Have we learned? Or will we just watch the rest of our forests burn up, and blame it on climate change?

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