Not only is the world in the grasp of the COVID-19 pandemic, but America’s western wildlands are burning up as well.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters that his state has dual crises: the massive wildfire complexes, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“At this time last year, California had seen 4,292 fires that burned 56,000 acres. So far this year, we’ve had 7,002 fires that have burned a whopping 1.4 million acres,” he said. California reports more than 660,000 coronavirus cases.
In Washington, the gigantic Evans Canyon Fire has burned over 110 square miles between Naches and Ellensburg, spewing thick smoke and ash northeastward.
Wildfires threaten lives. Last year, an inferno swept through Paradise, Calif., killing 95 people. This September, National Guard helicopters swooped into the Mammoth Reservoir campgrounds east of Fresno just in time to rescue more than 200 trapped campers.
In 2017, the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge closed Interstate 84, delayed truck, rail and barge shipments, and added a thick layer of greenhouse gases that blanketed our region with choking smoke and soot. Southwest Washington’s air quality reached its highest hazard level in history, prompting school closures.
Mammoth forest fires have been around for centuries. In a single week in September 1902, the Yacolt Burn engulfed more than a half-million acres, killing 56 people in the Columbia River Gorge and around Mount St. Helens. The smoke was so thick that ships on the Columbia River were forced to navigate by compass, and the street lights in Seattle, 160 miles to the north, glowed at noon.
Forest fires are part of nature, but they are getting more dangerous and expensive to fight. As fires increase in size and intensity, suppression, environmental restoration and mitigation costs soar.
U.S. News reports that the Department of the Interior, most notably the U.S. Forest Service, spent an all-time high last year of more than $2.9 billion combating fires — more than 12 times what it spent on suppression efforts in 1985. Insurance claims have topped $12 billion for the November 2019 wildfires in California, making them the most expensive in state history.
That is a growing problem as our nation is being swallowed up by a skyrocketing national debt. It soon will top $27 trillion, thanks largely to the COVID-19 response, meaning each American taxpayer would have to pony up $215,000 should our creditors call for immediate repayment.
John Bailey, a professor of forest management at Oregon State University, told the Associated Press that megafires – those that consume at least 156 square miles – are occurring more frequently. He believes “part of the solution is thinning forests through logging, prescribed burns and allowing naturally occurring fires to be managed instead of extinguished.”
Cutting diseased, dead and fire-damaged trees is not new. In inter-mountain forests (Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia), loggers once salvaged beetle-killed trees and sent them to rural sawmills to be cut into 2x4s. That practice was severely curtailed 30 years ago.
Knowing that mature trees are most susceptible to insects and disease, public forest managers once designed timber sales on small tracts as fire breaks. The logging and subsequent clean-up removed forest fuels which, in recent years, have been allowed to accumulate.
Harvesting helped fund replanting and fire-access road construction. Environmental mitigation techniques have dramatically improved, resulting in clean water and unencumbered access for fish returning to natural spawning grounds.
Megafires are polluting our air, endangering our health and safety and burning a bigger hole in our pocketbooks. By thinning, salvaging and logging, we could not only save expenses but also create jobs and bring in needed revenue to government.
It really is time to revisit the way we are managing our forests.
Don Brunell, retired president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He lives in Vancouver. Contact: TheBrunells@msn.com.