Out of Control Policy Blog

Here we go again

Fire season has again arrived in Southern California. A large fire in the Lake Hughes area had burned almost 17,000 acres by week's end. A fire west of Palm Springs consumed 4,000 acres; another more than 8,800 acres in eastern San Diego County.

Because of its acute infestation of bark beetles and extreme dryness, Lake Arrowhead is perhaps the most dangerous spot in a dangerous region for a big fire.

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In a normal, healthy forest, trees are loaded with insect-resistant resin. The beetles fly from tree to tree until they find one that's been weakened by disease or injury. Then they start boring in, releasing a pheromone to alert other bark beetles to the newfound banquet.

The beetles make winding, maze-like tunnels beneath the bark of the tree until it no longer can pump water to its branches or send nutrients down from its needles.

Just before the tree dies, the beetles reproduce and make a mass exit in search of new hosts.

This forest is anything but healthy. Three years of dry weather have weakened many trees, leaving them open to attack, and the beetles have gone out of control.

In an argument that sounds counterintuitive, experts say there are too many trees.

In a natural setting, wildfires sweep through such areas periodically, killing young trees.

But people have suppressed fires vigorously to protect homes and property.
"Because of a hundred years of fire suppression, we have double and triple the normal trees," said Richard Minnich, fire ecologist at the University of California, Riverside.

Even though much of the damage has already been done even before the first spark flies, there are ways to improve how we respond to wildfires. Here's an article of mine from last year:

When California realized we didn't have enough firefighters, officials called upon the military and thousands of prison inmates. Certainly, these were the actions of leaders who thought they had exhausted every possible resource.

However, one promising resource remained largely untapped - the 6,000 private-sector firefighters that serve Oregon and Washington. "I had 20 contractors calling me offering crews," an official at the Oregon Department of Forestry told me. "They were geared up, trained and ready to go."

Eventually, California did call on some Northwest contract firefighters, but only a few hundred. As the fire season up north came to a close, nearly all of the 6,000 firefighters would have been available. The next time wildfires threaten Southern California, we should use these contract firefighters more extensively. Better yet, California could change the way it fights wildfires and allow a homegrown industry to develop.

Will private wildfire specialists get the call this year?

Ted Balaker is Producer


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