Editor’s Note: Ryan Zinke is the United States secretary of the interior. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Within minutes of the deadly Camp Fire’s ignition, several acres were ablaze as fire spotters stood by helplessly. While Capt. Matt McKenzie of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded quickly, firetrucks were unable to reach the blaze and helicopters and air tankers were grounded due to the timing and weather, according to a report. Within two hours, the fire tore through the towns of Concow and Paradise before it raged on, claiming thousands of structures and dozens of lives.
President Donald Trump and I both saw the devastation of the fire on our recent trips to California: piles of rubble recognizable as houses only by their chimneys and charred appliances, and vehicles melted to the pavement in pools of molten aluminum. We also saw the heroism of firefighters, first responders and volunteers working together to battle the blaze and help the community.
California is a tinderbox. The ongoing drought, warm temperatures, insect infestations, poor forest management, continued residential and commercial expansion in the wildland-urban interface and other factors have made the western United States more prone to fire. The strong winds in California can rapidly turn a routine brush fire into a deadly blowtorch and send a storm of embers ahead of the flames.
Forests are filled with fuel from the floor, where highly combustible, dry pine needles act as kindling to jump-start the tiniest spot fire, all the way up to the crown where beetle-killed and parched trees dot the landscape. In between the floor and the crown, there are years’ worth of logs, overgrown shrubs, and standing dead trees. This fuel accumulation can turn naturally occurring ground fires into deadly crown fires that quickly spread out of control.
To make matters worse, large swaths of our most fire-prone forests are inaccessible via firetruck, as was documented in the Camp Fire. This is just one of many obstacles that make it extremely difficult to stamp out fires before they reach a catastrophic size or intensity.
President Trump already approved a major disaster declaration for California, which makes emergency funding and other resources available. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and I have sent hundreds of firefighters and other assets to the state, and we secured a fix to the way firefighting is funded earlier this year. While communities get assistance and firefighters continue to battle the fire, there’s more legislation in Congress that can be passed to help prevent these disasters in the future.
Right now Congress is working on the final version of the Farm Bill, which includes forest management provisions in addition to changes to Department of Agriculture programs. The House version of the bill would allow land managers to remove dead trees and dense brush from federal land that insect infestations and ongoing drought conditions have turned into matchsticks. One proposal would allow for the expedited approval of salvage logging projects to remove charred and dead logs after a fire.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what forest management means and what it doesn’t. Part of forest management includes reducing the fuel load by scientifically determining which trees need to be removed in order to improve forest health and resiliency. Active management doesn’t necessarily mean clear-cutting or large-scale logging, as some environmentalists would have you believe. It also includes prescribed burns in the colder seasons and clearing power line corridors of hazardous trees and excessive brush so if a wire or tree does fall it’s less likely to ignite.
There are three benefits to active management.
First, it is better for the environment to manage the forests. As San Franciscans who live more than 160 miles away from the Camp Fire know, the resulting smoke and emissions negatively affect air quality. Catastrophic fires also damage watersheds, scorch and sterilize land, and increase the likelihood of floods and mudslides in the rainy season after fires.
Second, active management is also good for the economy. Logs typically come out of the forest in one of two ways: they are either harvested as timber to sustainably improve the health and resiliency of the forest (while creating jobs), or they are burned to the ground. Jobs matter, and the timber industry has long been a cornerstone of rural economies. Fortunately, these economic benefits go hand in hand with our goal of healthy forests.
Third, and most importantly, the active management of our forests can save lives. The Camp Fire has killed at least 83 people, and hundreds more are still missing.
I’ve visited too many fire camps, grieved with too many victims and spoken with too many experts to know that our communities and loved ones deserve to be better protected. We owe it to the firefighters and neighbors we have lost to work harder to improve the health of our forests.
Every year we watch our forests burn, and every year there is a call for action. Yet, nothing gets done. Now Congress has the opportunity to pass good policy that saves forests and lives by including House-passed proposals for forest management in the Farm Bill.