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The Fire Next Time

Ted R. Williams has written an inspired letter to the Board of Supervisors concerning the danger posed by dead tanoaks on Mendocino Redwood Company's timberlands in the county.

As a result, it is reported that the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors has set aside 90 minutes to discuss, as an agenda item, the concerns Mr. Williams has raised.

The meeting is scheduled for April 21, 2015. It has been reported that MRC intends to meet individually with each supervisor before the supervisors take up the issue in open forum. It would be proper, perhaps even legal procedure (?), to insist that what is said by MRC behind closed doors to county elected officials should be made public before the April 21 Board of Supervisors meeting. It would be against public interest to withhold any information pertaining to this issue.

That Mr. Williams, as Fire Chief for the Albion Fire District, has succeeded in getting the Supervisors to respond is in itself inspired.

Earlier this year, on January 29, 2015, Chief Williams and the Albion Community did reach an agreement with MRC regarding the planned Timber Harvest Plan for Railroad Gulch (THP#1-14-080-MEN). That is, MRC has agreed not to use herbicides for seven years from the THP approval date, has agreed to a two-year harvest period, has agreed to conduct all road work within the specified area in the first year, and had agreed to supply Albion's Firefighters with maps and tours of the area. The letter of agreement was signed by John Anderson, MRC’s Director Forest Operations.

Of course, finding common ground regarding one harvest plan does not address the much larger issue of existing dead tanoak stands. That is the most important immediate fire and safety issue to be resolved.

While the fire dangers Mr. Williams raises are the immediate focus of concern, it is his touching on the matter of rights and limitations regarding property that also go to the core of the matter. It is just such linkage, that of the dangers fire poses to property and persons that may at last open a path towards an understanding that the community-at-large does indeed have a stake in how Mendocino County timberlands are managed.

The entire community is at risk when timber operations cause thousands of acres of timberlands to become a threat to lives and property beyond their defined holdings. The threat of thousands of acres of dead standing tanoaks is real, not imagined. Some few may argue that nature itself is a threat, or global warming, or careless individuals.

No such threats, however, directly relate to the willful decision to "reform" cut-over timber acreage by killing thousands of acres of standing trees and waiting for nature to bring them down or for a dry lightning storm to set MRC timberland and nearby communities on fire.


Mendocino Redwood Company is quite adept at making its case that it is a better "steward" than former owners. MRC claims to set aside selected "old growth" trees, increase the total volume of timber on its holdings, undertake habitat restoration projects, repair roads, retire some old logging roads, reduce sediment in streams, and promote increases in carbon sequestration overall. All that is to the good.

But, none of these proclaimed good practices directly addresses the policy of killing tens of thousands of acres of tanoaks, leaving them standing as a fire hazard, and waiting for the danger to pass.

It is the danger that dead standing trees pose that is at the heart of Chief Williams’ letter to the Board of Supervisors. Mr. Williams notes that half his district's 44 square miles is zoned as forest lands. As Fire Chief, he is in the best position to know what dangers are posed by large tracts of dead standing trees (tanoaks).

Last fall (11/14/2014) Mr. Williams wrote to CalFire expressing his concerns. He again raised his concerns on February 5, 2015, asking, Does CalFire evaluate fire risk in examining THPs (Timber Harvest Plans). No reply was forthcoming. If not CalFire, then what agency does consider the risks?

When Mr. Williams stated that intense harvests increase the amount of "unwanted species" on timberlands, thus posing a severe fire risk, CalFire's response, if I understand Mr. Williams correctly, is “dead trees burn the same as live trees.” On the face of it, no one at CalFire should believe that is true, let alone suggest such a blatantly false premise.

The next time CalFire shows up on any private person's property to inspect their "defensible space" that must be cleared, ask CalFire: "Do the same rules that apply to my property also apply to company timberlands? Does California Public Resource Code 4291 apply to all forested properties?"

If any reply is forthcoming, will it be anything other than evasive "double speak"? Let's not be polemic about it, but the subject cannot help but engender more than a modicum of skepticism.

In support of his concerns, Mr. Williams cites an excerpt by J. Morgan Varner, a fire ecology expert, quoted in "Humboldt Scientists Pinpoint Acute Forest Fire Threat" (Humboldt State Now, May 6, 2010). The energy released is so great you can't combat (crown fires) with standard firefighting practices. You have to move back, and let them die down." And, "Once a tree turns brown, we know it has really low foliage moisture content and it is likely to be ignited." It is in a phrase, an "unnatural fuel arrangement(s)."

Mr. Williams characterizes such a danger as a public nuisance. He believes property rights exist on both sides of the line. And so the issue is joined. It matters little whether the 90,000 or so acres to date of timberlands with dead tanoaks is a result of SOD (sudden oak death) or the use of an herbicide (Imazapyr), the result is the same, an out of control fire storm could be just waiting to happen. And, if it does happen, where will the blame be attributed? Is it due to global warming? Dry lighting? Plant disease? Herbicide Use? Human carelessness?

Whatever the cause of the next fire, one thing is certain: Prudent actions taken now, rather than later, will lessen the risks due to human interference with the natural cycle of regeneration of forest lands. To permit short-sighted, short-term profit motives to trump longer-term wise practices is in no one's interests, not individuals or corporations.

One recent fire incident will serve to put the risks into clear focus. According to a California Department of Forestry New Relief by Ernie Roht, September 22, 2003, a lightning storm ignited 59 fires in the King Range, Humboldt County. Before it was over, Shelter Cove was threatened and some of the fires burned for a month. The Canoe Fire alone scorched 11,200 acres. The Honeydew Fire scorched 13,778 another acres. The cost of fire suppression for this complex of fires cost at least $34,000,000. CalFire determined that this incident was the largest in Humboldt County since 1950. As troubling as the damage this fire complex caused is the conclusion that the frequency of lightning fires is rising. Similarities with what happened in the summer of 2008 in Mendocino County are clear.

A second example that serves to bring the issue of dead tanoaks into focus is to be found in the National Science Foundation report of August 21, 2013, Fire and Infectious Disease. The first thing that caused concern was the spread of sudden oak death (SOD) in California coastal forests. Plant pathologist David Rizzo (University of California-Davis) and his colleagues monitored 80,000 hectares of forest near Big Sur (tanoak, bay laurel, coast redwoods). In 2008, almost half of the test plots were burned, the fires lasting more than a month. They had expected the study area to be "fireproof": "Usually resistant to the effects of wildfires, California coastal redwoods are now burning as fast as other trees."

Why is this the case? The study found that a) redwood mortality risk is four times greater in SOD plots studied, b) dead tanoaks created more fuel for wildfires from fallen branches and leaf matter, c) the loss of shade dried out the forest, d) the pathogen involved in SOD, Phytopthora ramorum, has infected at least 45 genera of plants.

This report makes no bones about the risks to redwoods, calling the situation, extending for 435 miles of coastline, a "tinderbox." Indeed, the Basin Complex Fire alone, caused by lightning, burned 95,000 hectares. The Chalk Fire another 16,000.

At the end of my last article on the fire dangers the community faces (AVA-3/18/2015) a simple question was asked: "Will MRC engage the community-at-large in seeking solutions that all sides can accept and live with?"

No one can say that MRC avoids contact with members of the community. The agreement reached on January 29, 2015, with Albion Watershed is an example of engagement, albeit a small one. It is true that every change MRC makes to satisfy community concerns will come at some cost to it. The cost to MRC could cut into short-term profits.

There it is, then, every change in current timber management practices is likely to come at some cost to the for profit company. But, and it is a big qualifier, there are also long term savings, and greater profit, to be had by accepting changes that improve forest health and the safety of the communities embedded in the forests of Mendocino County. One fire, just one, that is ignited by lightning and fed by dead standing tanoaks could wipe out any profits to MRC for years to come.

Along with its lost profits, in all likelihood, private properties, community infrastructures, firefighters and residents’ lives, years of restoration efforts, streams, fish and wildlife habitat, tourist visits could all be put in jeopardy. Are such potential losses worth the risks?

Permit the writer a final observation. The challenge that the community must face head-on is the concept of property. We all live in a world built on the bedrock foundation of property. All other values have been secondary to the concept of property and the rights to it for thousands of years. History tells us that property has been understood to be more valuable than people because it can be acquired, owned, used, disposed of at will.

Aldo Leopold, as far back as 1948, made this point poignantly clear in his monumental book, A Sand County Almanac: "When Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence. This hanging involved no question of impropriety. The girls were, in a word, property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong." (p.201, Oxford University Press edition)

What we have come to recognize as the Abrahamic concept of property extends to land. In Aldo's terms "We abuse land because we regard 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. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man…" (p.128)

As I re-read Aldo Leopold's book, I sit looking out on the battered vestiges of over 3,000 years of deforestation of the island of Sicily. Odysseus, returning from the Trojan War landed here and walked into the great Oak forests that once graced the island. Like so many others who came and went, he was in search of gain and had no intention of becoming a "citizen" of the island. He went away no wiser or better for having been there. He had no land ethic. All the would-be empires of the Mediterranean invaded Sicily. They came, they saw the great forests, cut them down for profit and for building navies with which to invade other nations. Again, none of the invaders possessed a land ethic.

In place of the great forests, the substance and texture of the Sicilian land was forever altered. Such transformation was not for the benefit of the native inhabitants or the land from which they drew their sustenance and sense of place (their land ethic). The powerful who exploited the land saw their destinies elsewhere. If timberland interests (not MRC alone) are to remain part of the fabric of Mendocino life, it is in their best interests (as well as long-term profit and sustainable practices) to seek agreement with the community-at-large as to what the future holds for the forests of Mendocino County. The unifying principle upon which timber interests and the community can unite must, in a word, be land based, a land ethic that benefits and sustains the people, the land, and "propertied" interests.

One Comment

  1. izzy April 1, 2015

    Due to a multiplicity of problematic factors, many directly linked to human activities over time, our local forests – which cover most of the county – are now in a very dangerous and rapidly worsening condition. If there ever was an issue that will simply disregard the business-as-usual posturing, this is it.

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