Michael Brown: Don’t debate forestry management in the middle of disastrous wildfires

Michael Brown: Don’t debate forestry management in the middle of disastrous wildfires
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The Butte County Fire in California has consumed at least 113,000 acres and is only 25 percent contained.  The Los Angeles County Fire has consumed at least 91,572 acres and is 20 percent contained. The Ventura County Fire has consumed at least 4,531 and is 80 percent contained. 

These fires alone have consumed 209,103 acres and continue to move toward the Pacific Coast because of the downslope winds that frequent Southern California.  Roughly 250,000 have evacuated the fire zones and at least 30 people have perished. In 2003 massive wildfires also consumed thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in-and-around San Diego.  

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CAL FIRE, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, is coordinating California’s firefighting efforts in-and-around Los Angeles and other areas.  CAL FIRE is professional, tested and ready to fight these fires. And while CAL FIRE is best known for its firefighting capacity, CAL FIRE also responds to other emergencies and disasters when called upon.  CAL FIRE is, indeed, a first responder.

But CAL Fire is also responsible for the management of California forests.  According to CAL FIRE,“Protection of California's natural resources ... is accomplished through ongoing assessment and study of the State's natural resources and an extensive CAL FIRE Resource Management Program.”

This includes reviewing 500 to 1,400 plans to harvest timber on private lands and 6,500 site inspections — plans submitted by private landowners and logging companies who want to harvest the trees. "Controlled burns" to manage vegetation involve foresters, firefighters, landowners, and the local communities.

The mission of managing California’s forest is not unique.  Every state, whether they have forests, grasslands, or other urban-wildland interfaces, attempts to manage those resources to maximize their use while simultaneously reducing the risk of damage caused by fires.  This management is similar to every state’s wildlife departments which manage the conservation and hunting of wildlife.

As America becomes more and more urbanized, management of natural resources which bump up against urban development, require smart, scientific and proven methods of management to maximize utilization of natural resources, while managing the inherent conflict that occurs as land areas become more and more urbanized.  Even in rural areas, this kind of management is essential to protect lives and property while appropriately exploiting those natural resources that provide jobs and economic development.

FEMA, the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce and others provide funding for part of these management efforts.  And when fires break out, FEMA provides Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAG’s) to financially help state governments as their resources are depleted in fighting massive fires similar to those in California.  FEMA has provided this federal assistance for decades.

One can debate whether or not the federal government should be involved in providing federal funding assistance for what is a state responsibility — the management of its natural resources, and the fighting of fires in the states.  But over time we have evolved a funding mechanism that assists in fighting fires, managing resources and assisting state governments when state government resources are being depleted.

The failure to properly manage forests is a serious issue.  Purists believe that forests should be allowed to grow naturally, burn naturally, and develop without human interference.  Unfortunately, that is a naïve position because Mother Nature is indifferent to man’s development of homes and businesses that intrude into the natural growth areas of forests and grasslands.  If we want to build homes in forested areas and allow urban areas to intrude into the mountains and plains, man must attempt to manage that interface to reduce loss of life, destruction of property, and economic damage.

When natural clashes occur between urban areas and forested areas as we see in California, wildfires can be catastrophic — destroying lives and property.  The economic costs are astronomical. That is why when these events occur, federal, state and local governments work together to provide the equipment, manpower and money necessary to stop the destruction.

In California, intra-state mutual aid among California counties; and, inter-state mutual, between the states, is being used to deploy manpower and equipment to fight these fires.  The federal government also responds, in the form of financial assistance, to help contain and stop the destruction.

Debating what is proper forestry management is an appropriate debate.  Every state should look critically at how they manage forests and grasslands, especially in the urban-wildland interface.  Every citizen who chooses to live in or near these urban-wildland interfaces also has a responsibility — a responsibility to create a defensible space around their property.  

We have a responsibility to enter into those debates before and after first responders are putting their lives at risk.  We should have an honest, open debate about proper forestry management. But we should not distract from the hard work first responders are performing while homes are being destroyed and lives are being lost.  Once the danger is contained or eliminated, then we can debate as vociferously as we can about proper urban wildland interface issues.

Until then the focus should be on stopping the spread of these fires, saving lives and protecting property.  

Michael Brown is the former director of FEMA and undersecretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. Follow Brown on Twitter @michaelbrownusa. He hosts "Heckuva Show" heard on radio in 38 states from its flagship station, NewsRadio 850KOA, 850 AM and 94.1 FM.