Wildfire Awareness Week highlights California’s forests and helps to remind us of the importance of proactively managing them to prevent wildfires and protect communities.
The current state of our forests is at severe risk. We’ve experienced 5 years of extreme drought and with that came the bark beetle epidemic that has killed more than 102 million trees. Although California has declared an end to the drought, its impacts are far from over.
We expect to see more tree mortality in the coming months and years.
In order for the bark beetle to stop its northward march, we have to have several wet seasons. And that’s just the first step.
With a wet winter and spring, we are seeing the fast growth of vegetation. The dead and dying trees on the forest floor and the increased vegetation, can combine to create catastrophic wildfires ‑‑ ones that are larger, hotter and more severe.
In order to return our forests to a state of long term health and resiliency, we must increase the pace and scale of forest management of private, state and federal lands.
So what is forest management? It’s a way of proactively managing our resources in a way that benefits both our environment and our economy. It thins out the small unhealthy trees, leaving behind the larger strong ones that can better withstand disturbances.
It reduces forest fuels to protect communities and creates fuel breaks to allow firefighters a chance to effectively fight the fire and provide a safe exit for residents.
Forest management works to restore forests to historic densities. Forests in the Sierra Nevada once had 50-100 trees per acre. Now, we see 500 to upwards of 1,000 trees per acre.
It creates a more resilient forest that can survive natural disturbances like disease, drought and wildfire.
But why should the average person care about forest management? Because healthy forests are important to everyone – both urban and rural.
While forests provide rural areas with good paying jobs. They also provide tourism and recreation.
These jobs support a wood products industry trying to keep up with California’s expanding population. Sustainable wood products build our homes and schools, give us sports equipment, cleaning products, clothes, food storage and more.
Urban residents can thank our forests for their clean water. 60% of California’s water comes from forested watersheds in the Sierra. Our forests benefit both the quality and quantity of drinking water downstream.
But during catastrophic wildfires, our watersheds fill with debris and sediment.
During drought, too many, small unhealthy trees, take water from the larger stronger ones, leaving all trees more stressed and susceptible than usual.
Forests impact the air we breathe. Trees store carbon in their trunks and leaves, giving off clean oxygen for us to breathe. However, in a wildfire, they become a large emitter of greenhouse gases. In fact, an average wildfire season in California produces 2/3 of all black carbon emissions, which are the worst kind. This leads to a warmer climate over time and immediate health impacts such as asthma, cardiovascular and lung disease, and even cancers.
Overcrowded, unhealthy forests are prone to catastrophic wildfire, which endanger the lives of people, communities and firefighters. They ruin wildlife habitat, release tons of greenhouse gases into the air, stunt rural economies and degrade our watersheds – making proactive management key to environmental protection.
Studies have shown that proactive management costs less in the long run, than actual fire suppression.
If we can see the forest through the trees, there is an opportunity to proactively protect our forests and the many environmental and economic benefits we get from them. We’ll continue to urge forest policies that protect our forest resources and restores them so we can enjoy them for generations.