Let’s Play the Forest Fire Blame Game!

Politicians in California and the federal Government have already begun their bickering over who is responsible for the poor response to the fires in southern California, with Ruben Grijalva, the head of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, blaming the Marines and the federal Forest Service’s poor leadership for grounding two dozen water dropping helicopters. To tell the truth, I’m not all that interested in this fight, since I already know where to put the blame.

I just pulled up a couple maps, one of the forest fires in California this year, and one of national forests in California, and, wouldn’t you know, they coincide almost exactly. This is not a coincidence. (And yes, there is forest in California not managed by the federal government.) These fires are directly attributable to federal forest policies.

Although federal policy is, officially, that forest fires are essential for healthy forests (which is what scientists have known for decades), almost no fires are allowed to burn. Fires are necessary for several reasons. First, it helps thin forests of smaller, weaker trees so that mature ones, which can survive fire, can grow without being crowded. This helps prevent diseases that can decimate forests, and, since disease can leave millions of dead, dry trees, makes them more vulnerable to the massive sorts of fires that forests have difficulty recovering from.

Second, older desert forests and chaparral are unproductive—that is, they do not provide the same habitat as ones that are cleaned by fire regularly. Sage brush, for example, is an essential food for several species, such as the sage grouse. However, after a couple years it becomes woody and inedible. After a fire, however, the brush burns down to the root, which then puts up new, green, edible growth.

Finally, many species of trees are incapable of reproducing without fires. Here in Oregon, we have enormous tracts of land in the high desert covered in ponderosa pine. Poderosas’ cones will only become active after a fire, so if fire is prevented for long enough, the desert forest becomes a desert.

So why don’t we let fires burn? Loggers are allowed a certain amount of timber from public lands (and with the current administration, that amount has increased), and they don’t want to lose the revenue. Where most people see a beautiful vista, they see dollar signs and strip mines. A sort of disgusting parasitism has arisen between logging companies and the Forest Service. Contrary to popular myth, loggers do not pay for the chance to log public lands. The Forest Service pays them. And then pays again to replant. This exploitation is largely foisted upon the Forest Service by congress (bought and paid for by loggers and strip miners).

There is also the issue of public pressure. Aside from the geniuses who build houses in fire prone areas, and then don’t bother to protect their homes from fires with rather simple steps (most “victims” of forest fires), there is a great deal of pressure from average people who see forest fires as destroying the land. This was made much worse by the fire that consumed Yellowstone in 1988, and the misinformation spread by much of the media at the time of wildlife death (very few animals actually died).

So, no, the Marines aren’t to blame for the fire. Even the arsonists (if it does turn out to be arson) only sped up the inevitable. Forests burn.


  1. Steph said

    I wouldn’t put as much of the blame on the home owners (the victims) as I would the developers and zoning officials. Most people who buy or rent homes are, at most, guilty of some ignorance of fire prevention methods (especially poor and esl families). This administration is responsible for an enormous regression of the steps Clinton’s administration took to protect out forests and wild spaces. Old growth redwoods in northern California are actually in danger of being logged pending the outcome of the bankruptcy trial of a logging co.!!!

  2. Dixie said

    it’s “couple OF”—-use your prepositions properly, please

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