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!

Trains: Forest friend or foe?

In 1873 the forests of Sonoma and Marin Counties were lush and verdant. Giant redwoods grew to enormous heights and age in the Russian River Valley and filled the watersheds of Dutch Bill and Austin Creeks. Mount Tamalpais hosted stands of huge redwoods.

But 1873 was a fateful year. Austin Moore (who later owned the Kings River Lumber Company that decimated the Sierra sequoias) and mill owner Samuel P. Taylor joined forces with banker and former U.S. Senator and Governor of California, Milton Slocum Latham and potato farmer Warren Dutton to form the North Pacific Coast Railroad. By 1875 tracks had been laid to Tomales through what is now Samuel P. Taylor State Park. By 1877 the line extended to Duncans Mills and by 1889 to Cazadero. Forest destruction followed in its wake. Sawmills buzzed and ripped all along the rail line: at Bodega, Camp Meeker, Tyrone, Moscow and Cazadero. Korbel (then a sawmill) provided ties for the rail lines.

Then in 1906, the San Andreas Fault ruptured and left San Francisco in flames. Shortly after, the Cityʼs rebuilding campaign began importing massive amounts of redwood from the north coast. In the rush to meet the demand, there was little thought for environmental damage and the forests were severely over-cut changing the mix of species (more brush, fewer conifers) and setting up the conditions for several catastrophic fires. One burned from Guerneville to the sea!

Eventually and ironically the presence of rail transportation and the depletion of trees led the railroads to promote the tourist industry to make up for falling revenues. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad which absorbed the NPCRR publicized its “Triangle Trip” from San Francisco to Monte Rio, Monte Rio to Fulton, then Fulton back to San Francisco. The railroad owned the ferry boats needed to make the connections. Even Samuel P. Taylor opened a resort called Camp Taylor. The growth of the tourist industry has, in turn, provided an economic incentive to preserve forest lands.

Railroads soon lost their subsidies as the money was transferred to auto roads and oil production. We didn’t see what was coming: huge numbers of autos, air and water pollution, mega-parking lots, highway carnage, sprawl development, gridlock and, finally, global climate change.

With the groundbreaking for the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit on February 24 the old rail line from Larkfield to Cloverdale is back in business. This time the train may actually help the forests. The SMART commuter train will provide an alternative to lugging around those steel cages with wheels we all use for transport, thereby reducing greenhouses gases that contribute to global climate change. Trains are part of the solution to climate change, the single greatest threat to forests. But this can only help if we all resolve to use SMART rather than our polluting cars. So, save a tree, ride a train!


Making more, fixing less

by Rick Coates

Well, they are at it again. Caltrans contractors are busy cutting more mature redwoods along Highway 101 to make room for more automobile habitat. At a time when climate is warming dangerously, Caltrans, with the encouragement of our local government, is cutting redwoods which remove the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so we can increase the number of carbon dioxide producers on the freeway.

Why? What causes this insanity? Is it ignorance of science? Is it selfishness? Or is it that our representatives pay more attention to the auto lobby than they do to the health and safety of their constituents? Yes, they support the SMART train, then undercut the ridership by expanding 101. And now, for the same reason, Golden Gate Transit is considering suspending routes to Sonoma County.

Public Policy has serious consequences. Last year the automobile killed 33,963 men, women, and children in the US. This is far more than our losses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trains accounted for only 971 fatalities and nearly half of those resulted from a conflict with, you guessed it, an automobile. And these numbers will pale into insignificance to the loss of life due to global climate change.

Climate change is the single largest log-term threat to forests,, not to mention, species survival and water resources.

So why do we take the problem so lightly? The Board of Supervisors should be leading the charge for alternative transportation. More rails, less asphalt. More bike trails, interconnected with neighboring counties, no new highways. More electric cars and charging stations, fewer SUV and Hummers. More safe, convenient and on-time public transit. More carbon fixing trees, fewer carbon spewing autos.

It’s the stupid system

by Rick Coates

Outrageous. Disheartening. But, unfortunately, no longer surprising. After fourteen years of involvement in government environmental review, my naiveté is dead. Still, it was not without concern that I received four calls in the last three months. Calls about corruption. From insiders.

The first call was from a young man who had hired on to a prestigious environmental consulting firm in San Francisco. His specialty was toxicology. He had just received his doctorate and still retained the fresh idealism of youth. He was assigned a task analyzing water issues related to a construction project to be built by a major oil company. His findings, which were to be included in an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), turned up serious toxic pollution that might potentially delay or halt the project. His company had just asked him to alter his findings in order to protect their client, a company whose name virtually everyone on Earth would recognize. To his credit, he had resigned rather than falsely his data. Unfortunately, his firm had changed the results anyway and issued the report with his name on it. He was made to understand that if he complained, he would not get another job in the industry.

Least you think that this was unique, consider call number two from a scientific consultant who worked on a local conversion-of-timberland-to-grapes in Sonoma County. The consultant was pressured to conclude that there would be no significant damage to a particular watershed by the project. The evidence was clear. Flooding and erosion would increase, percolation to ground water would decrease. The wells of the neighbors would suffer. The salmon habitat in the creek was already degraded. Additional silt would destroy it. The scientist had resisted so another consultant was hired to do the job.

The third call was from a well respected scientist who told me a story of his graduate student days. He had worked on research for the National Forest Service while doing his doctoral work. His thesis advisor placed him in charge of an ongoing research project while he took several months off to work on another project for a private company. When the advisor returned, the results of the forestry research done by our hapless graduate student displeased him greatly. Apparently the results threatened the profits of the private company that the thesis advisor worked with. The graduate researcher was told to alter his findings or do without a doctoral degree. You will be happy to know that the doctoral candidate ultimately received his doctorate by appealing over the head of the advisor, but was prevented from publishing in the U.S. for many years. His advisor had positions on or connections with peer review boards of Journals in the field. Our hero is now much older and has over 50 peer-reviewed publications under his belt.

The fourth call came from an insider in a government agency charged with reviewing a local logging plan. He told me that his supervisor instructed him to get the plan approved that the review process was “taking too long and too many questions are being asked.” The project proponent had “too many friends in Washington and Sacramento that can hurt the agency.”

Before jumping to the conclusion that we just need to eliminate the unethical individuals in the system, consider the system itself. Private projects in California must undergo review in accord with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The responsibility for review is vested in State or local agencies. The California Departments of Forestry (CDF), Fish and Game, and Water Quality Control review logging and conversion plans. But these departments do not write up the actual plans. Project proponents pay a private Registered Professional Forester (RPF) or a forestry firm to write a logging plan. Because foresters and forestry firms compete with one another for this business, they are under financial pressure to cut corners and increase the cut any way they can. Those who don’t maximize profits for their clients soon loose out in the market place. Lax review and enforcement of the regulations by CDF encourages cheating.

The same arrangement is true of biology, geology and hydrology consulting firms working on EIRs or logging plans. Project proponents contract directly for the production of an EIR.

Section 21082.1 of CEQA requires that EIRs “be prepared directly by or under contract to” the government agencies doing the review. The agencies may then recoup the costs by charging the project proponents fees. But the Second District Court of Appeals in a stunning example of judicial activism ruled in the case Friends of La Vina v. County of Los Angeles that it was OK for project proponents to hire consultants directly so long as the agencies “review” their work and adopts it as their own.

Unfortunately, many of the agencies are so cozy with the industry which they regulate that they are disinterested in an objective review. CDF routinely accept the forester’s and consultant’s ridiculous assertions as “substantial evidence” without (and contrary to the requirements of CEQA) any data presented to back them. Without public involvement plans are virtually rubber stamped.

Until this dysfunctional relationship between the project proponents, their consultants and the agencies, changes we can expect that the foresters will continue to claim and CDF will continue to agree that disastrous logging plans will have “no significant environmental effects.”

Please write your California Senator and Assembly Member and ask that they sponsor legislation to change this insidious arrangement.