FirebreakForest Fire

By Lindsay R. Mohlere

The rains finallyarrived in Northern California, with enough precipitation to help 1,000 firefighters battling the Camp Fire bring the blaze under control. Now the once-raging vortex that wiped Paradise, California, off the map, displaced nearly 15,000 inhabitants, and killed more than 88 people has left nothing but a slurry of ash and broken dreams.

The Camp Fire started on November 8 at 6:29 a.m. Critical fire weather conditions pushed the blaze to over 100,000 acres in two days. As of November 25, the fire had destroyed more than 153,000 acres. As of December 1, 25 people remain missing and unaccounted for, which really means presumed dead.

Recovery crews of coroners, forensic anthropologists, and others use simple tea screens to sift through the grit and ash for miniscule human remains. DNA matching will take months to accomplish. It is California’s deadliest fire. A nightmare tragedy.

The Camp Fire was contained shortly after Thanksgiving Day, but the blathering, divisive dialog from county, state, and national leaders continues, whipped by windbags more concerned about the next election cycle than doing something positive and necessary.

President Trump has criticized California for poor forest management. Governor Jerry Brown countered with climate change. Zinke blamed “environmental terrorists.” And so on.

The incredible thing is both sides agree on the problems. Too much fuel in the forests.

Unfortunately, they can’t get close to a mutual agreement without drawing blood.

Last year, the major fires in Oregon and Washington seemed to wake up and prod the respective legislative gangs into action. Hopefully, California doesn’t throw away its “don’t waste a crisis” moment. If not, it will truly be Paradise Lost.

The Farm Bill. Maybe?

As of this writing, the House-approved 2018 Farm Bill is still being bounced around the Senate. New forestry provisions in the bill feature significant forest management reforms that would protect communities and help reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires like Oregon’s Chetco Bar fire, Washington’s Range 12 fire, and California’s Carr and Camp fires. The bill would expedite logging, thinning, and burning (as appropriate) on forests and watersheds at immediate risk; remove “hazard trees” from fire that pose public safety risks; salvage dead and dying timber after fire; and manage and contain insect and disease infestations on federal forests.

Sounds all fine and dandy, doesn’t it? Makes sense too. Should be bipartisan. Ha!

Don’t kid yourself. When you have the opposition believing that any attempt to change how we approach managing our forests with thinning and fuels reduction is just another way of filling the timber industry’s coffers, you’ve got a problem.

I hope the Senate gets off the dime and the 2018 Farm Bill gets inked before our esteemed senators and representatives take a month off to press the flesh. If it doesn’t happen, I doubt anything close will pass muster once the new legislative bodies return to work in January.

Forest FireSome Good News

As we come to the end of 2018, the devastation of this year’s 7,778 wildfires has been estimated to be more than 1.8 million acres, and the bickering and frivolous lawsuits continue.

However, there is good news. In March, Congress passed the $1.3 trillion omnibus budget. It stopped a government shutdown and funded our military. In addition, it solved the “fire borrowing” conundrum that has plagued the Forest Service for years.

The bill funds a contingency account for wildfire fighting with up to $2 billion a year for a decade. It will prop up the Forest Service’s management budget when suppression costs exceed the regular fire budget, and wildfire fighting costs will be paid for much like other disasters.

The spending bill also increases to 20 years the top-end length of wildland stewardship contracts for areas of high fire risk and reduces some environmental review requirements, including a 3,000-acre categorical exclusion provision that streamlines approval for logging and fuels reduction efforts on federal land parcels under 3,000 acres. This provision of the bill has lawsuit-happy environmental groups whining.

The takeaway is the bill doesn’t get fully active until 2020. This year, the feds forked over $500 million for wildfire fighting and another $40 million for management costs. The reason the big bill didn’t come into play is that the Republican majority wanted to stay within 2018-2019 discretionary spending caps.

Even with all its flaws, the bill has the potential to make a huge difference in how the Forest Service manages the forests.

That’s a Wrap

In 2019, we are transitioning the Firebreak column to the sidelines, but coming back with exceptional information and news of new technologies in the timber industry. The column, Emergent Technologies, will appear in the January/February 2019 issue of TimberWest.

The new column will explore some of the many new technological advances designed to increase efficiency, safety, and productivity in our industry.

Best of the New Year to all. And, as always, stay safe out there. 

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/USFS

TimberWest November/December 2013
November/December 2018

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Firebreak Column — Paradise Lost
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Guest Column
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