Wildfire finger-pointing: Both sides are wrongPosted: November 29, 2018
As is the case with all natural disasters, there is a tendency to point fingers. Almost always, the finger-pointing misses the point. We are seeing this play out with the horrific wildfires in California. Politicians are using them as an opportunity to raise their issues. The left is raising the “climate change” flag during this drought cycle, and politicians on the right are raising the “lack of active forest management” flag. Both are using those points to find fault with leadership. Yet the answers may beyond leadership’s control.
First, the wildfire and forest leadership across the U.S. and in California may be the best it has ever been. Vicki Christiansen now leads the U.S. Forest Service. She is a former state forester in two western states and a deputy chief with responsibility for the U.S. Forest Service wildfire program. In the history of agency chiefs, no one has been as well versed in wildfires and working with states as Vicki. Her boss, the administration’s undersecretary, Jim Hubbard, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, has similar credentials. In California, Ken Pimlott leads CALfire. Ken promotes active forest management and rapid initial attack where much of the forests are federally owned while balancing demands of environmentalists, unions, and thousands of at-risk fire communities. His ability to juggle these interests and work toward more fire-resistant forest conditions and obtain the firefighting effectiveness California needs has been second to none.
Second, the federal forest management policies, in place thanks to recent federal bipartisan legislation, will escalate the thinning of the nation’s federal forests significantly. For example, planning timeframes for thinning projects should be reduced by two thirds. While the chief is committed to escalating this work, it will take decades to accomplish all that needs to be done.
The problem is that even with the best wildfire leadership and forest thinning policies, we are still seeing horrific wildfires and heartbreaking fatalities. The answers may not be within wildfire leadership’s control. The answer may lie in preventing ignitions, and that answer may prove difficult to accept. For example, do rural communities and neighborhoods with flammable vegetation in the west want to agree to have the power grid turned off during times of red-flag warnings? Do they want to pay the price for burying power lines? Are they okay with drone flyovers looking for infrared signals of potential smoldering embers or campfires? Are they okay with total debris-burning bans? All of these are costly and intrusive steps.
A rational examination will show that the nation is blessed to have the best wildfire leadership it may have ever had. It will also show that streamlined forest management policies are working. The true problem, given that we still experiencing horrific results, may be beyond the wildfire-fighting agencies’ control. Those above answers, though difficult and costly, may be what is required.