Fire Experts Say Western States Need To Clear Out Mismanaged Forests

As the West Coast approaches the tail-end of what have been increasingly destructive fire seasons, experts say it's time to "shift the focus back to managing healthy forests that can better withstand fire," in what would be a sharp reversal from decades of federal, state and local agencies prioritizing fire suppression over prevention, according to NBC News.

"Fires have always been part of our ecosystem," said Mike Rogers, a former Angeles National Forest supervisor and board member of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees. "Forest management is a lot like gardening. You have to keep the forest open and thin."

Federal forest management dates back to the 1870s, when Congress created an office within the U.S. Department of Agriculture tasked with assessing the quality and conditions of forests. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt oversaw the birth of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of public land across the country.

In California, forest management also falls under the purview of the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. -NBC News

CalFire has spent over $600 million on fire prevention efforts in in less than 10 years, and has 'removed or felled nearly 2 million dead trees.' The agency has made efforts to mitigate future fires - setting a goal to treat 500,000 acres of wildland per year using techniques that include slashing, burning, sawing or thinning of trees. Unfortunately, CalFire remains far from meeting their goal.

"It’s an ongoing process," said spokeswoman Christine McMorrow. "There is always going to be more work."

"Is it enough? Well, it’s enough for what we’re doing right now, but is that enough to get all the work that needs to be done in one year or five years or 10 years? It’s going to a take lot," she added.

Cal Fire is steadily receiving injections of money to do what it can to reduce wildfire risk, including better land management and training a new generation of foresters. In 2018, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will allocate $1 billion over five years to Cal Fire to be used on fire prevention measures. But experts warn that more money is needed.

Long before the country’s founding, Spanish explorers documented wildland fires in California. In 1542, conquistador Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed along the coast and noticed smoke billowing up from what is now known as the Los Angeles Basin. He called it “la baya de los fumos,” or “the bay of smoke.” -NBC News

The history of fire suppression vs. forest management dates back to at least 1910, when "The Big Burn" destroyed 3 million acres across Idaho, Washington and Montana - killing 85 people in an event which would reshape fire policy in the United States for decades to come. 

Now, the US Forest Service has ordered that all wildland fires are to be extinguished as soon as possible, emphasizing suppressing fires by the morning after they begin in what is known as the '10 a.m. policy.'

"We have more large trees per acre than we’ve ever had because they have continued to grow, and underneath these large trees are young shrubs that fuel fires in the crown of the trees," said Mike Rogers. "When a fire starts in there, it’s unstoppable."

Read the rest of the report here.