Friday, October 26, 2007

Fueling the fires

-- by Dave

So Glenn Beck wants to know: Where did these crazy environmentalists get the idea that global warming had anything to do with these fires in southern California?

Maybe from data provided by the real world (obviously an alien environment for Beck):
Last year, a study in the journal Science found that "large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons." The greatest increases were in forests of the Northern Rockies, but was seen throughout the west The pattern of western fires matched what would be expected not from changes in land use--mostly logging and ranching--but from climate change.

Specifically, a warmer world caused by the accumulation of heat-trapping greenhouse gases produces alternating deluges and droughts. The extra heat causes greater evaporation, but the water vapor remains in the atmosphere longer, or travels farther, before falling--in buckets. The result is alternating wet and dry years. In wet years, vegetation grows like mad. In drought years, that vegetation becomes tinder, exactly what southern California is now experiencing. As the scientists said, "an increased incidence of large, high-severity fires may be due to a combination of extreme droughts and overabundant fuels."

And no, it's not just a matter of media attention or the ubiquity of fire video on YouTube. The scientists found that the frequency of wildfires beginning in the mid-1980s was nearly four times that of 1970 to 1986, "and the total area burned by these fires was more than six and a half times its previous level." It's real, and it's going to continue.

. . . and get worse. Just as this season we call summer is now slipping well past Sept. 21, so the fire "season" is busting out of its former bounds. The average time between the reported first wildfire and the last in any given year increased by 78 days (64%), comparing 1970 to 1986 with 1987 to 2003.

Another factor is snowmelt, which has been dissipating in the west (with dire consequences for water supply, but that's another story). The earlier the snowmelt, the worse the wildfire season, because if the snowpack holds on into late spring or summer it releases its water slowly and gradually, reducing the flammability of vegetation. But if the snow has all melted by early in the season, much of it is lost to runoff rather than retained in the soil, where it would dampen the flammability of vegetation. Also, the warmer the summer--another consequence of climate change--the worse the burn: warmer temps, by increasing the rate of plants' evapotranspiration, make brush more flammable.

OK, well, what about Michelle "My Pants Are Permanently Afire" Malkin's claim that it's all environmentalists' fault for having the temerity to challenge the Bush administration's forest-thinning plans?

Malkin cites an article -- from the industry-funded anti-environmentalist "think tank" Heartland Institute, natch -- claiming that citizen appeals of Forest Service plans were gumming up the industry's plans to thin forests:
The GAO examined 762 U.S. Forest Service (USFS) proposals to thin forests and prevent fires during the past two years. According to the study, slightly more than half the proposals were not subject to third-party appeal. Of those proposals subject to appeal, third parties challenged 59 percent.

Appeals were filed most often by anti-logging groups, including the Sierra Club, Alliance for Wild Rockies, and Forest Conservation Council. According to the GAO, 84 interest groups filed more than 400 appeals of Forest Service proposals. The appeals delayed efforts to treat 900,000 acres of forests and cost the federal government millions of dollars to address.

Well, Bush's forest-thinning program was fine within the parameters of genuine forest-thinning efforts in areas where it's needed, and environmentalists said so at the time. But like everything else Bush touched, it actually was a money-making front for his friends in Big Business, the timber industry in this case, which used forest thinning plans as a cover to begin logging in a large number of tracts where it wasn't necessary -- but where there were plenty of profits to be had.

It's useful to remember, after all, that forest thinning isn't necessary or even desirable in the wet forests of the far western Northwest, where a damp regime still prevails and fires historically have only occurred every 300-500 years. That's why they call them "old growth" forests. But that, as it happens, is where the Bush administration decided to create a large number of those "thinning" programs that resulted in the lawsuits that Malkin decries. In the meantime, I'm doubtful that very many, if any, of the appeals of the Forest Service thinning operations involved any of the tracts in southern California that are now ablaze.

No, the chief problem with the California tracts is that, after passing his Healthy Forests Initiative, Bush didn't even bother to fund it. Money that should have been going to forest thinning was being diverted to, as Dick Cheney would say, "other priorities."

This was made crystal-clear in a recent National Resources Defense Council report:
Entitled ‘Safe at Home: Making the Federal Fire Safety Budget Work for Communities,’ the report was prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It notes that federal funding for state and local community fire protection programs has been slashed from $148.5 million in Fiscal Year 2001 to $85 million proposed by the Bush administration in the fiscal 2008 budget.

“They’re slashing resources for crucial fire protection measures at the very same time that the number of people whose homes and livelihoods are at stake is soaring,” said NRDC Senior Policy Analyst Amy Mall. “Communities are being left to their own devices when it comes to basic prevention and protection. Officials should be putting public money where the public lives.”

In total, only three percent of the $2.6 billion federal fire budget is dedicated to supporting state and local fire departments, which are where people turn to most often for information and assistance about proven methods of protecting local homes and communities from wildfires. A much larger share of federal fire prevention money goes to subsidize private timber company logging in remote, uninhabited areas away from the homes and businesses at risk.

Another piece from lays this out as well:
Funding for the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, unveiled by President Bush in 2003 with much fanfare, remain hundreds of millions of dollars beneath levels authorized in the legislation -- an assertion Rey disputes.

A boost in federal money for tree thinning in the San Bernardino National Forest after the 2003 fires dissipated as more resources were dedicated to the war in Iraq and Katrina relief efforts.

Constraints put on the way some money could be spent kept officials from using it in the most efficient and strategic manner.

... Five years ago, drought had taken hold in the West, and it unmasked the consequences of a century of misguided fire-suppression policies. Efforts to stop every fire had altered the forests' natural cycle of fire and re-growth, leaving them unnaturally dense with trees.

Lack of rainfall weakened the trees, making them susceptible to attack from bark beetles. The beetles weren't new to the forest, but the abundance of dying trees caused a beetle population explosion, leading to still more tree deaths.

As tree mortality grew exponentially, so did the threat of catastrophic fire.

However, even more significantly, it's evident that someone in this administration ordered plans to deal with it buried:
Zimmerman knew all of these things during a period in 2002 and early 2003 when he forwarded his report to supervisors in the Agriculture Department, which oversees national forests. He knew there would be no easy solution.

He said it would take a lot of money and a lot of time to return the forest to health -- $300 million at $30 million a year for 10 years, to adequately reduce the fire danger facing the tens of thousands of residents in Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear, Idyllwild and other forest communities.

In the months before the October 2003 fires, Zimmerman was told during a conference call to shred the document, he said during an interview this week.

He declined to identify the Agriculture Department official who gave the order but said other Forest Service officials were with him on the call.

"We just looked at each other," Zimmerman said. "We were incredulous."

Meanwhile, where were environmentalists in all this? They were backing the brush-clearing -- but they wanted it done right, and not just as a scam for the timber companies to make off with valuable trees:
Rich Fairbanks with the Wilderness Society, a conservation group, agrees that thinning projects are important and should be better funded.

But Fairbanks, based in Idyllwild, said forest managers must go one step further and have a "good, solid, aggressive cleanup after the thinning," which would include prescribed burns.

Darn those environmentalists. Funny how they have the nasty habit of being right time after time. Bet it makes blood shoot out of Glenn Beck's eyes just thinking about it.

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