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Tony Vagneur: Climate change not the only contributor to wildfires

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

While we’ve had our own problems with wildfires in Colorado this summer, the carnage has not come close to what California and its northern neighbors are experiencing, certainly not in terms of the death toll or destruction of property. Wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, all point to the power of Mother Nature and our helplessness against her perceived transgressions toward civilization.

Lurking behind all the coverage of the fires has been the elephant in the room, climate change. California Gov. Gavin Newsome finally brought his concern out into the mainstream the other day, putting the blame for the wildfires squarely on climate change. He did it in a mildly deferential way, but didn’t leave much room for discussion which, in my mind, falls short of addressing the problem.

Naturally (and you could take that as a pun), climate change (if we’re talking about increased global temperatures) does have an effect on many variables of wildfire, such as contributing to drier vegetation. To his credit, Newsom also mentioned lack of forest management, which has greatly contributed to the wildfire problem.

The question becomes, how can the effects of climate change on wildfires be effectively mitigated (one of government’s favorite words) in the here and now? Can we do something this year to begin to alleviate next year’s fire season, not only on the west coast, but in the entire western U.S.?

No one seems to be willing to put forward many ideas in that bucket, other than saying we use too much fossil fuel, produce too much carbon, and that climate change is anthropogenic (human-caused). Fixing those issues isn’t going to happen in the near-term or in time to ease the continuation of more wildfires in the West.

It is important to do something right now to give our forests and rangelands every chance to accept fire as it did for centuries before our forest management plans sabotaged nature. The mantra of put fires out, don’t let them burn, and decreasing livestock grazing on public land has created an exponential increase in fuel load, which in and of itself, allows fires to burn hotter, longer and bigger.

For years, local and state governments have been at loggerheads over what to do with state trust forest lands (federal land granted to the states), earmarked for schools and rural government entities. Should the lands be logged, to finance new schools as intended; should the timber be saved to protect endangered species habitat; should the land be sold to private interests to help balance budgets; or as in the case of Colorado, should much of the land be off-limits to the public, leased instead to private hunt clubs and other private enterprises?

There are no easy answers, and tragedy can unknowingly occur. Since the 1970s, logging and grazing of public and private lands has been drastically decreased. Obviously, that decrease has helped increase fuel loads and wildfires. The Bear Wallow Fire in Arizona wiped out over 500,000 acres, burning hotter than it should have because the forest hadn’t been thinned or logged in deference to the endangered Spotted Owl’s preference of living in old growth forest. The unintended tragedy occurred when the Spotted Owl’s habitat was destroyed by the fire.

Other wildlife suffers as well; squirrels, rabbits, black bears who climb trees with their cubs for protection; eagles, young elk and deer; pine martens, small birds. In some areas, after a very hot blaze burns through, not even flies or other insects can be found.

According to the Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, a fire of 500,000 acres is estimated to emit a similar amount of CO2 as six large coal-fired power plants over the course of one year. In a similar vein, the California wine country fires of October 2017 emitted as much CO2 in one week as all of California’s cars and trucks do over the course of a year.

Yes, the changing climate and increased drought are having an effect on forest health, vegetation and on wildfire intensity, but it would appear that it is crucial to manage the forests today, not wait until some year in the future when carbon emissions can be curtailed to an as yet acceptable level. Managing forests by thinning and logging trees, increased grazing and otherwise managing vegetative growth, will go a long way toward slowing carbon releases.

As a parting shot, think about this; after the tragic 2018 fire season in California (105 people killed including 97 civilians and six firefighters), it is estimated that an additional 1,000 people died prematurely of complications related to the smoke from the fires, such as those with lung problems, heart disease, compromised immune systems and other issues.

Injured lungs don’t necessarily bounce back after the smoke clears. Sometimes they just get worse, year-after-year, without further provocation.

Tony Vagneur salutes the Northwest publisher of this weekly column, Lee Duncan. Tony writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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