Today’s news is filled with images of the massive wildfire that has raged across nearly 400 square miles near Yosemite National Park, threatening San Francisco’s water supply.
The Yosemite wildfire started Aug. 17 in the Stanislaus National Forest when a hunter’s illegal fire swept out of control. To date, it has burned nearly 250,000 acres of timber, meadows and sensitive wildlife habitat and cost $100 million. Officials say it will cost tens of millions of dollars more to repair the environmental damage.
Federal officials have amassed a team of 50 scientists, more than twice the usual number, to assess the damage to wildfire habitat. Team members are working to identify areas at the highest risk for erosion into streams, the Tuolumne River and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, San Francisco’s famously pure water supply.
In 1988, another massive fire in a national park galvanized the nation’s attention.
The Yellowstone Park fire burned almost one million acres at a cost of $111 million. It raced through diseased and dead timber, and only through the valiant efforts of firefighters were historic buildings, such as the Old Faithful Inn, saved.
In 1902, the Yacolt Burn, the largest forest fire in recorded Washington state history, destroyed 238,920 acres — more than 370 square miles — and killed 38 people in Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania counties.
The fire, fanned by unusual dry winds, traveled 36 miles in 36 hours. Because there was no organized firefighting effort, it raged unchecked, burning homes, churches and barns, killing countless livestock and forest creatures. At least 146 families were left homeless.
The Yacolt Burn consumed $30 million worth of timber — valued at more than $750 million in today’s dollars. In the end, only rain extinguished the Yacolt Burn. As many as 80 other fires around the state that summer consumed more than 400,000 acres of timber.
Despite the lessons of history, we are still failing to connect the dots.
Trees are living, growing things and just like us, they are stricken by injury, disease and death. We treat our human ailments, but when President George W. Bush proposed treating the forests’ ills, activists screamed to high heaven.
Under Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative, forests would be thinned, underbrush removed, and useable trees salvaged from burned areas. The president’s policy was designed to reduce fire hazards, offset the cost of firefighting, prevent massive greenhouse gas emissions and put people to work.
Large-scale fires in western and southeastern states can pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a few weeks as motor vehicles do in a year, according to newly published research by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado at Boulder. The study estimates that U.S. forest fires release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Today, we have all but locked up our national forests and have severely restricted thinning, salvage and logging on other publicly managed lands. Instead of serving as fuel for green energy from highly efficient biomass plants, the underbrush and diseased, dying and dead trees litter the forest floor, dry tinder for the next raging wildfire.
Some folks want a “hands off” policy for all of our forests. That is neither practical nor wise. National forests were created in part to provide timber income for the taxpayers. Allowing responsible harvests outside the boundaries of national parks, wilderness or sensitive areas would put people to work, provide lumber and paper products, and lessen the risk of another $100 million wildfire.
It makes sense.