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!

Victory for Richardson Grove

EPIC: Environmental Protection Information Center

The California Court of Appeal today ordered Caltrans to reevaluate the environmental impacts of a controversial highway-widening project in Humboldt County that would harm irreplaceable old-growth redwood trees in Richardson Grove State Park. The appeals court unanimously found that Caltrans failed to follow the law in assessing impacts to ancient redwoods and providing mitigation measures to reduce potentially severe harm to the trees. Caltrans’ project—intended to allow bigger trucks to travel Highway 101 through the park—would require excavation, fill, and paving within the fragile root zones of Richardson Grove’s ancient trees.

“This is a victory for Richardson Grove’s ancient trees and for the generations of travelers, hikers and campers who have enjoyed their magnificence,” said Center for Biological Diversity attorney Kevin Bundy. “Caltrans owes the public a full and honest account of how its highway-widening plans could damage this irreplaceable state park.”

“The significance of this ruling cannot be overstated,” said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director at the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). “Our ancient redwoods are invaluable, and we hope Caltrans gets the message that their survival cannot be put at risk by a careless highway development proposal.”

“This illustrates how important the California Environmental Quality Act is for ensuring that major projects are subject to a thorough environmental review,” said Patty Clary of CATs. “The court has made an important decision that respects our responsibility to protect Richardson Grove as a natural treasure for future generations.”

Read more at: Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) » EPIC Victory for Richardson Grove

Restoration efforts to the Willow Creek Habitat help bring back coho salmon

On Sept 8, 2013 the Press Democrat reported that biologists found hundreds of young coho salmon in the Willow Creek tributary of the Russian River.

Forest Unlimited’s Executive Director Rick Coates reports on the backstory:

For years Forest Unlimited opposed logging in Willow Creek by Louisiana Pacific (LP). After Harry Merlo drove LP into the ground and pulled out of California, LP sold its Willow Creek Valley holdings to Mendocino Redwoods Company (MRC). We began opposing MRC logging plans.

While working on saving the Grove of the Old Trees on Fitzpatrick Lane west of Occidental, we convinced the Open Space District to declare the area from Bodega to Jenner west of Occidental to the ocean as an “Area of Interest” for acquisitions. That area included Willow Creek Valley.

Forest Unlimited sent a letter to MRC suggesting that it would be more profitable for them to sell their holdings to the State Park than fight us on every logging plan. With the help of Caryl Hart, who was at the time serving on the State Parks Advisory Board, we were able to get the State Parks talking with Mendocino Redwood Company and the Open Space District. MRC agreed to sell and Land Paths agreed to manage Willow Creek for the State Parks. Restoration work began on the Creek even before the sale but workers communicated privately that ongoing logging was hampering recovery.

So restoration plus an end to logging in the Valley has resulted in coho salmon! Thank you Forest Unlimited members who supported our efforts during those many years!

Redwoods thriving as climate changes

by Matt Brown, The Press Democrat

There is finally some good news from environmental scientists studying climate change: as the earth gets warmer, ancient redwood trees are thriving.

Photo by Christopher Chung, The Press Democrat.

The huge trees that dot the California coast and the Sierra Nevada mountains soak up carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, keeping the potentially harmful greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere.

Despite the warming climate, redwood trees are growing faster than at anytime over the last century, according to a report issued today by the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative.

“That’s a wonderful, happy surprise for us,” said Emily Burns, director of science for Save the Redwoods League, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.

California summers have warmed, but rainfall has remained steady. The hotter climate also burns off fog that normally shrouds the world’s tallest trees, providing more access to nourishing sunlight, according to the report.

“The fact that redwoods grow faster rather than slower as fog decreases, that surprised us,” said Bill Libby, a UC Berkeley forestry professor who was involved in the study.

Read more at: Report: Redwoods thriving as climate changes | The Press Democrat