CK: Fire mitigation is a social welfare issue and should not be driven by a profit motive, but rather is a broader public good issue. This applies to land, forestry, building and energy management.

We are talking about completely renovating how we approach a fire. We have long assumed that fire had to be profitable. That all solutions had to be addressed through capitalist enterprise when in fact, when we look at other types of natural disasters, we manage earthquakes statewide for social good, this is an earthquake state. In the 115 years since the San Francisco earthquake, we have spent trillions of dollars to modify our landscape so that we can live with catastrophic earthquakes. This was tested in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and also in the 1994 Northridge quake. We learned more from these quakes and continue to spend huge amounts of money to support mitigation because it is a social welfare issue and is not driven by a profit motive, but rather is a broader public good issue.

We have the longest coastline in the United States, so we have tremendous tsunami exposure. You can go to any coastal town and find tsunami warnings signs and sirens as well as early warning monitoring equipment. Yet we do not say, how can this be profitable? No, no, we recognized the public interest to invest in this mitigation system that will minimize catastrophic outcomes and fatalities. We have never done that for a wildfire. Our investment has been to suppress wildfires, rather than mitigate wildfires through building codes, through land management, and through planning processes that acknowledge that we cannot stop wildfires but rather we need to proactively manage these lands differently and mitigate catastrophic outcomes.

Traditional Fire at Audobon Canyon Ranch, courtesy Egret.org

California is a state that has droughts and floods. We have spent enormous amounts on flood control, water management, and reservoirs. These facilities were funded by the State and federal government as a public good and social service framework. We as individuals didn’t pay for this. No, this was a public good social service.

If we don’t make these investments we are going to be paying for these actions with lives and tremendous losses when we do face a catastrophe. This is exactly what we are now seeing with wildfire. In 2017 wildfire losses for the state of California were somewhere on the order of 20 billion dollars. In 2018 with the Campfire, it boasted 25 billion dollars of loss. That is just for primary losses, mostly home and structure losses. These numbers do not include the fire suppression costs.  The State spends around 3 billion a year suppressing fire and that’s not included in these losses, neither are any crop losses or what is called ecosystem services—such as clean air or clean water. We still don’t know the full impacts of these issues. Many places which burned this year will have boiled water orders, which means they need to boil any household water before consuming it because the water treatment facilities were destroyed. This may continue for months or years to come. We have a clean water act—how does this measure up to the radical losses we are facing due to wildfire? The costs that we are facing are so immense from the losses caused by wildfires that it’s hard to measure the full ramifications.

California is a state that has droughts and floods. We have spent enormous amounts on flood control, water management, and reservoirs. These facilities were funded by the State and federal government as a public good and social service framework.

The rule has been for decades that we have to make it profitable for the logging industry to come in and do this work to reduce the fuels in the forest. The crystallization of this thinking is the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003. The product of the 2000 fire season was the Healthy Forest Act, except that it did not fund the removal based on science, but rather based on profit for the logging industry. When logging companies are asked to clear forests, they need to take other trees to make it profitable for their operation. Logging companies have historically been allowed to take other big trees to ensure profits.

Create Service Contracts Rather Than Resource Extraction

I myself and my colleagues argue, the way to do this is not to tell the logging companies to go ahead and take some big trees to make a profit, but instead, we treat it as government contracts to only go and remove small trees and underbrush. Rather than asking the mills to try to make a profit from extracting small trees, instead, simply pay them as service providers doing work for people to create a healthier landscape.

Traditional tribal fire treatments can increase the production of high-quality raw materials for baskets while reducing the danger of uncontrolled wildfires. (Image credit: Tony Marks-Block). Courtesy Stanford.edu

Create Rewards for Stewardship

Logging has always been about profit and loss based on extracting trees. What if they had the responsibility to take care of the forest for the creation of a healthy landscape as service providers? You are land stewards and we are going to pay you to be good land stewards and clear small-diameter trees and undergrowth.

Even though it’s really complex, California is the best place to do this. If it cannot be done in California, then maybe it can’t be done. The reason California is the ideal place to do this is that we have a giant network of citizens and non-profits groups that are committed to the health of the land, water, and natural resources. I have never heard of these conservancies before coming to California. Basically, every part of the Sierra Nevada has a conservancy full of people committed to supporting a healthy landscape and maintaining a conservation ethic on this land. These conservancies have a tremendous amount of collective oversight on the Forest Service and other agencies. That doesn’t exist in any other state. We have the potential to utilize and leverage this non-profit network that no other state has. Instead of the forest service handing out logging contracts, a designated conservancy can step in with oversight and say that this money is going to get spent specifically to reduce hazardous fuels. We know a logging company has payroll and other expenses, so we are going to contract with you to make the forest healthy rather than selling off a bunch of big trees. California has an enormous amount of combined ecological will that doesn’t exist in any other state.

Shift from seeing our landscape as one for extraction to one of protection from climate change’s most radical impacts.

It’s also a shift from looking at our natural resources landscape with an extractive eye, to instead seeing our natural landscape as our protection. It’s actually very analogous to the hurricanes we’ve seen this year. All the wetlands restoration we’re seeing in places like Louisiana and Mississippi. Billions and billions of dollars are being spent to restore wetlands because this landscape was treated as a commodity to extract the highest level of profit from in the past [and now is being used as a buffer to protect communities]. The logging industry is very similar. We need to flip this thinking on its head to ask how we can use this land to mitigate the disasters that climate change is bringing.

The West has always treated the natural landscape as an extractive industry, how can we extract these resources for the highest level of profit? We need to start seeing forest stewardship as a buffer to mitigate the worst effects that climate change will bring. We can’t change that climate change train right now.

We need to start seeing forest stewardship as a buffer to mitigate the worst effects that climate change will bring.

We have to turn the derivative on its head and instead ask how we can manage this land to mitigate the disasters that climate change is bringing. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, we would still have decades of climate change impacts. Alright, we know that climate change is only going to bring more disasters, so this is how we can treat this landscape so that we can mitigate disasters, not just to survive, but live in a harmonious manner. Which is exactly what the indigenous people did for centuries before us.

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ― Aldo Leopold

“We are part fire, and part dream.”– Firedog, Cheyenne

This is part four of a four part series of articles based on interviews with pyrogeographer Crystal Kolden.

UC Merced Assistant Professor Crystal Kolden has spent years researching possible solutions to wildfire, including a diverse array of surprising mitigation practices.  Her extensive career includes work as a firefighter, fire ecologist and researcher. Kolden is uniquely qualified to comment on issues relating to fire ecology and fire mitigation. She is a Certified Fire Ecologist by the Association of Fire Ecology. Kolden holds a Ph.D.in geography.

I recently interviewed Kolden who provided in-depth solutions to some of the most troublesome issues of wildfire in this time of increasing climate-change impacts. These solutions are presented in four articles, each presenting mitigation solutions from personal options to broad-ranging policies for social good. These interviews were facilitated by Bioneers.org

About Crystal Kolden

Crystal Kolden, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Fire Science in the Management of Complex Systems Department at the University of California, Merced, is a former wildland firefighter. She conducts research on how humans can mitigate catastrophic wildfire disasters while embracing and acknowledging fire as our ancestors did. She lives in rural California, where she burns the land to heal it. Pyrogeographer.com

About Pamela Biery

Pamela Biery, MA. is a communications consultant and freelance writer living in Northern California. She packs light, is happiest outdoors, and travels often with her husband and French bulldog. PamelaB.com