How to reduce catastrophic fires

by Rick Coates

Fire season in California is normally a tense time.

Particularly in Sonoma County where so many of us live in and about the forest and depend upon the tourism that it generates. The recent large fires in Mendocino County and the ongoing drought has only heightened our fears.

One would think that CalFire would be looking for ways to decrease the likelihood and intensity of fires. One would expect that both the Governor and the Legislature, who must allocate taxpayer money to fire fighting, would be interested in ways to decrease the frequency and damage of fires. So I offer these suggestions in hope that they are listening.

It has been known for a long time that clearcutting, contrary to intuition, actually increases the likelihood of catastrophic fire. In 1970 a Stanford University study by Allan Cox and Davison Soper documented this effect. They found a high correlation between those areas that were clearcut and those areas that experienced major fires. The likelihood of fire in heavily cut areas was nearly 10 times greater than in uncut forests! In fact in 1969, a court of law confirmed that clearcutting increases fire danger.

Of course correlation is not causation, but it is difficult to see how forest fires might cause clearcuts. (“Selvage” logging of burned over forest was not included in the designation “clearcut” in the Stanford study.) After a little thought, it is far easier to see why clearcuts might cause fires.

Here is what the research shows:

A great deal of slash is left over from a clearcut which is where a majority of fires start and spread. In response to public pressure CalFire instituted meager regulation of slash but the industry fought them and the final regulations were pitifully inadequate.

After a clearcut, larger areas are opened up to grasses which dry out in the summer increasing flammability.

Clearcuts usually require extensive roadbuilding which produces even more slash and opens up formerly inaccessible areas to hikers, campers, fisherman, marijuana growers and the homeless with their cigarettes and campfires.

Clearcutting large areas changes the microclimate from cool, still and humid to hot, windy and dry. Shade no longer exists. They are no trees transpiring water vapor to increase humidity. Without the capture of fog by conifers, the forest floor dries out. Missing are the larger fire-resistant trees. Redwoods in particular are fire-resistant due to their fibrous asbestos-like bark and retention of huge amounts of water.

Due to the dry microclimate, regrowth is generally limited to fire-prone brush species like bay laurel and tanoak. Brush also grows back after the first fire setting up conditions for a fire encore. A clearcut is the “gift” that keeps on giving.

Of course climate change is making all these effects worse. And clearcutting is making climate change worse. Trees absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and convert it into cellulose. Clearcutting a forest halts this process. But worse still, the resulting forest fires release all that sequestered carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere!

Inexplicably, clearcuts are still legal! If fact they are still done on a large scale by Gualala Redwoods Inc. along the Gualala River in northwestern Sonoma County.

If CalFire is serious about reducing the number of fires their firefighters must fight, they will tighten the requirements to remove slash. If the Legislature and Governor are serious about reducing the costs of forest fires to lives, property, taxpayers and the climate, they will ban clearcuts!