The Operational Land Imager aboard the NASA-USGS Landsat 8 satellite captured this image of California's Camp Fire on Nov. 8, 2018, around 10:45 a.m. local time (1845 GMT). Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from USGS
16 Nov 2018

Controversy over who is to blame for the California wildfires

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There has been a lot of  recent public discussion about the reasons why 2018 has been the worst wildfire year in history for California: along with blaming it on the the Climate Change factor, many believe not removing old, dead wood and grass in the forests during the extreme heat waves has been the governments´most deadly mistake.

Many believe dead trees should be completely removed from the California forests, especially partially burned trees from previous forest fires, as dry wood and other vegetation may be more susceptible to catching on fire during droughts. Dry wood and dead grass has also been determined to burn more violently and spread wild fires more quickly than live trees, especially in the initial stages of a wild fire.

 

102 million dead trees in California.

 

102 million dead trees in California´s forests

Across California, an astounding 102 million trees have died over the past six years from drought and disease — including 62 million trees in 2016 alone, the US Forest Service estimates. Once-mighty oaks and pines have faded into ghastly hues of brown and gray.

The biggest worry is that these dead, dry forests will become highly combustible when California’s annual fire season rolls around next summer. The south and central Sierra Nevada regions, where most of the dead trees are located, are at particular risk of severe wildfires according to the US Forest Service.

 

Removing old wood in these large forests is, needless to say, very costly and funding has not been enough to remove enough of this extra "fuel" to keep up with the extreme heat waves and the lack of rain that California has experienced in recent years.

Also, owner responsibilities have sometimes been difficult to determine, since the forested land is a mix of Federal, State, and Privately owned land. With cleaning needs estimated to cost multiple millions of US dollars per year, and 60 % of the land being Federal, the question of who owns the responsibility has not always been clear.

 

"Not just a forest management issue!"

The controversy also revolves around the fact that the recent fire have been striking cities, and cannot be classified as pure wild fires or forest fires, as the tweets below suggest:

 

Tweets about the California fires

 

Others feel blaming the forest fires on forest management practices is an over simplification: Firefighters and researchers alike claim that forest management is only one component in mitigating the impacts of wildfires, particularly in California, as the state deals with record-breaking drought and other impacts from the changing climate.

 

 

Back burning. Photos byU.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alex Echols
Back burning. Photos by U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alex Echols

 

Back Burning - more effective than mechanical removal? Or too dangerous?

Suggestions have been made to perform Prescribed Burns in the affected areas, and simply remove dead wood, grass and other vegetation by burning them in a controlled manner. The method, called Back Burning in the US, is however very controversial as there is a perception that Back Burns could cause more trouble than they solve.

Back Burning is indeed dangerous if done incorrectly, and is usually done in the winter season when the risk of fire spread is lower.

However, when President Donald Trump recently accused the State of California of not keeping their forests clean and well managed, he angered many people who have been fighting for federal funding for exactly this purpose for many years.

Emergency declarations provide municipalities with air support, relief supplies and evacuation transport. The White House approved such an emergency declaration for the state of California on Friday November 9th — but President Trump warned he may not do the same in the future, reports ABC News.

 

Blaming forest fires on mismanaged forests an "attack on California"

In an angry tweet, the president threatened to pull federal funding for the state if nothing is done to remedy the situation with forest management:

"There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!"

(President Trump tweet)

Fire officials said Trump's statements, and remedies, were incorrect:

One leading California fire official on Saturday called Trump's comments "a shameful attack on California."

 

Majority of forests are Federal land

"The president’s assertion that California’s forest management policies are to blame for catastrophic wildfire is dangerously wrong," California Professional Firefighters President Brian K. Rice said in a statement on Saturday.

"Wildfires are sparked and spread not only in forested areas but in populated areas and open fields fueled by parched vegetation, high winds, low humidity and geography," he continued in the statement. "Moreover, nearly 60 percent of California forests are under federal management, and another two-thirds under private control. It is the federal government that has chosen to divert resources away from forest management, not California."

On Sunday, California Gov. Jerry Brown's office fired back, calling the president's tweet "inane and uninformed."

"Our focus is on the Californians impacted by these fires and the first responders and firefighters working around the clock to save lives and property — not on the president’s inane and uninformed tweets," Evan Westrup, the governor's press secretary, told ABC News.

 

"Fires don´t care which political party you belong to"

"Natural disasters are not “red” or “blue” – they destroy regardless of party," Rice concluded. "Right now, families are in mourning, thousands have lost homes, and a quarter-million Americans have been forced to flee. At this desperate time, we would encourage the president to offer support in word and deed, instead of recrimination and blame."

On Saturday evening, November 10, Trump changed course, tweeting support for the firefighters, the homeowners and the tragic victims of the west coast wildfires.

"God bless them all," the president tweeted.

 

Photo Above:

The Operational Land Imager aboard the NASA-USGS Landsat 8 satellite captured this image of California's Camp Fire on Nov. 8, 2018, around 10:45 a.m. local time (1845 GMT).

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from USGS