I wanted to take time this week to comment on the wildfires raging across California. If you’ve turned on your TV anytime in the last couple weeks, you’ve likely seen harrowing images of wildfires engulfing entire neighborhoods and destroying all homes and property in their path. The largest fire has destroyed over 236,000 acres, an area larger than New York City, and cost California taxpayers $55.6 million to fight. California state officials estimate that about 25% of that fire has been contained.
Please be sure to keep the residents of southern California in your thoughts and prayers as they deal with these fires and begin rebuilding their lives.
Unfortunately, as is the case with many things nowadays, California Governor Jerry Brown is politicizing the wildfires—stating at a news conference last week that climate change means California faces a 'new reality' where lives and property are continually threatened by fire. Despite his claim, climate experts are skeptical about what role climate change may or may not have. As an example, the latest National Climate Assessment report assigned a “low” to “medium” confidence rating on claims that global warming was making wildfires worse across the western U.S. In addition, the Los Angeles Times published an article in 2015 debunking Governor Brown’s claims that wildfires that year had also been caused by climate change. In the article, scientists who study climate change and fire behavior said that their work does not show a link between wildfires and global warming.
You may be wondering what this has to do with Minnesota, but did you know that our state is home to 17.4 million acres of forest that can be susceptible to wildfires when conditions are right? Fortunately, here in Minnesota, conditions have not been conducive for large-scale wildfires in recent years. However, just last year, there was a 1,000 acre forest fire just west of Ely. While this fire was much smaller when compared to the fires in California, the question remains the same—how can we better prevent and contain wildfires?
We all know the basics of outdoor fire safety thanks to Smokey Bear. But what role does federal or state land management play in preventing forest fires?
According to data from the National Interagency Fire Center, over the past three decades, the area burned by wildfires in the U.S. each year has grown dramatically while the total number of fires has remained roughly constant. The largest change has been the average size of each wildfire, which has more than doubled. Thus, the problem appears to be less about the frequency of wildfires and more about the size of the wildfires.
The issue is gaining traction in Congress with California Representative Tom McClintock leading the way. During a recent meeting of the Subcommittee on Federal Lands, McClintock remarked that federal authorities have done a poor job of implementing methods to reduce the number of devastating fires. Examples include prohibiting controlled burns, opposing major fire breaks in fire prone areas, and refusing to clear brush in fire prone areas. Lawsuits by extreme environmental groups seeking to prohibit sound forest management programs is another contributing factor leading to the mismanagement of our nation’s forests.
“Time and again, we see vivid boundaries between the young, healthy, growing forests managed by state, local, and private landholders, and the choked, dying, or burned federal forests,” McClintock said. “The laws of the past 45 years have not only failed to protect the forest environment—they have done immeasurable harm to our forests.”
In a later House address, McClintock placed the blame of poor forest management on 1970s laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act—stating that these laws “have resulted in endlessly time-consuming and cost-prohibitive restrictions and requirements that have made the scientific management of our forests virtually impossible.” Click here if you’d like to read more about this issue.
As you can see, the problem is beginning to be discussed at the federal level, with optimism that reforms to address some of these land management practices may follow. I am hopeful that with new leadership in Washington, we can begin to see some of these practices changed.