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Why California burns — its forests have too many trees

Thomas M. Bonnicksen is professor emeritus of forest science at Texas A&M University and author of “America’s Ancient Forests” (John Wiley & Sons, 2000). He is a graduate of UC Berkeley.

The reason wildfires are burning California with unprecedented ferocity this year is because our public forests are so thick. It is our fault. We don’t manage our forests, we just let them grow. That is the simple truth. However, it is easier to deny the truth and blame a warming climate instead of admitting our guilt and taking action to prevent wildfires.

Hot, dry weather doesn’t cause catastrophic wildfires. It only makes them worse. In order for any fire to burn, it must have fuel. To spread wildly, it must have abundant fuel. Efforts in the 20th century to prevent fire and preserve forests have been too successful — they have disrupted the ecological balance and allowed more and more trees to grow.

Some California forests have more than 1,000 trees per acre when 40 to 60 trees per acre would be ideal. These overcrowded forests are filled with dead trees, piles of logs, and thickets of small trees. The perfect conditions for severe wildfires. No wonder wildfires are getting bigger and more destructive each year, and the cost to fight them is increasing as well.

In addition, greenhouse gas emissions from one acre of burned forest are about the same as the exhaust from 13 cars for one year, according to the study I did for the Forest Foundation in 2008. These gases stay in the atmosphere warming the climate for centuries. Only carbon dioxide can be recovered, and then only if a new forest is replanted. Unfortunately, California is losing forests on federally owned land at the rate of about 26,000 acres per year because of a lack of replanting after catastrophic forest fires.

Wildfires are predictable and preventable. Just look for the thickest forest or the oldest chaparral and that is where a catastrophic fire will burn. Reduce the fuel and you reduce the threat.

So, why don’t we stop the destruction and human suffering? Mainly because politicians and government officials find it easier to justify spending money to fight wildfires than to reduce the fuel that causes them.

Unfortunately, the annual ritual of death and destruction from wildfires will continue to plague Californians in the decades ahead. We know it is unnecessary. We know that thinning our dangerously overcrowded forests will prevent it. We just lack the will to do it.

Thomas M. Bonnicksen is professor emeritus of forest science at Texas A&M University and author of “America’s Ancient Forests” (John Wiley & Sons, 2000). He is a graduate of UC Berkeley.



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