Sunday, November 11, 2018

California's devastating wildfires are a slow moving yearly rehearsal for our future with Climate Change

One of the saddest facts related to the recent disastrous wildfires in Democratic California is the lack of any state and local planning effort to significantly reduce the risk.

I don't want to confuse anyone. I'm not talking about reducing Climate Change which underlies that current increase wildfire disaster-loading. California's extra effort in implementing anti-Climate Change policy notwithstanding, Climate Change is going to happen, at near-maximum catastrophic impact.

Official agencies of both the United States and China determined that this year (yes, the U.S. government under Donald Trump). See the post in this blog As the midterm election approaches we should be in great fear of Climate Change. Why aren't we?

As indicated in the article linked from the image above:

    “It’s like a tragic replay of last year, with strong winds in both Northern California and Southern California blowing fire,” said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara, recalling the devastating Wine Country fires in October 2017 and the Thomas Fire, which burned through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December.
    There is a common denominator between all the fires — bone dry vegetation and hot, dry winds out of the northeast that many scientists believe were exacerbated by climate change. But the remarkable thing, Moritz said, is that nothing has been done to prepare communities like Paradise, or Santa Rosa, for the kind of devastation they were destined to face.
    “We had a lot of discussion after the fires last year about the liability issue with utilities, but it’s interesting to see what didn't happen,” Moritz said. “Nobody has talked about mapping neighborhoods and homes in fire-prone areas like they do in flood plain hazard zones, engineering resilience into communities or building a little smarter.”

Simply put, California liberal environmentalism has no playbook for addressing the social and economic details of problem, details which are also explained:

    It is important given that more than 2 million homes throughout California — about 15 percent of the state’s housing — are at high risk for wildfire, according to the Center for Insurance Policy and Research. That’s more than any other state.
    The stakes are high, said Tom Bonnicksen, a retired forestry and wildfire expert who spent years researching fires in California.
    “There are millions and millions and millions of dollars going into fighting fires,” Bonnicksen said, “but there are not millions and millions and millions of dollars going into preventing the fires.”
    The situation is especially bad in and around Paradise, an incorporated town of 27,000 where dozens of homes, businesses and ranches were incinerated, prompting a state of emergency to be declared. Bonnicksen said the forests around Paradise contained some 2,000 trees per acre — including many small, shrub-like saplings that can serve as fuel ladders — when he studied the area about a decade ago. A healthy forest should have between 60 and 80 trees per acre. The densities have only gotten worse since then, he said.

If you do the quick math using the numbers offered by Tom Bonnicksen, a decade ago officials governing the area around Paradise, California, in the Sierra Foothills, needed to eliminate about 95% of the shrub and tree growth within the region's forested lands, both public and private.

Professor Bonnicksen is the author of numerous articles. His 2000 book America's Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery is both...
  1. the definitive work on impact of the Paleo-Indians and their descendants on North American forest development and
  2. the basis for subsequent attacks on Bonnicksen by extreme environmentalist misusing the normal peer review process
...such as the balancing comments reflected in this typical review. The underlying problem, of course, is that the computerized data assembled 8000 years ago by the Paleo-Indians was lost in a wildfire. If you didn't understand that last sentence as sarcasm you probably should stop reading now. Otherwise, here is discussion from that review:

    ...The drastic effects of European settlement on North American ecosystems have caused many ecologists to overlook the role that Native Americans once played in shaping the landscape prior to European arrival. For this reason, the presettlement forests of North America are often assumed to have been primeval wildernesses, whose structure and composition were determined solely by physical and biotic forces.
    In the first part of America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery, Bonnicksen (2000) attempts to correct this overly simple perspective by describing the climatic events and cultural practices that shaped the development of North American forests from the last glacial maximum (21,000 years ago) to the moment prior to European settlement. An explicit theme running through the book is that American forests prior to European settlement were not pristine wildernesses, but rather the product of millennia of usage and management by Native Americans. Or, as Bonnicksen states on page 142, “... there can be no doubt that North America would have been a different place when Europeans arrived if American Indians had not lived here.” In the second part, Bonnicksen describes the state of the presettlement forests, combining eyewitness accounts from early European explorers, trappers, soldiers, and missionaries with a review of the ecological, paleoecological, and archaeological literature.
    Because Bonnicksen, a professor in the Department of Forest Science at Texas A&M University, places such emphasis on the role played by the Paleoindians and their descendants in shaping North American forests, his book is, despite its title, as much a cultural history as an account of forest development. Although Bonnicksen briefly summarizes the main climatic events that took place during the Pleistocene and Holocene and assesses the vegetational responses, the bulk of the first part of the book is devoted to a description of Native American cultural practices and a discussion of their impact on North American ecosystems. These effects included hunting, small-scale logging, agriculture, and, above all else, fire....
    America’s Ancient Forests provides persuasive evidence that Native American activities had at least some consequences for North American ecosystems. Perhaps the most dramatic example is the extinction of most large mammal species in North America between 10,800 and 10,000 years ago, which was probably a result of the effective (and perhaps wasteful) hunting practices of Paleoindians, coupled with rapid environmental changes. Fire is another clear example of how Native Americans may have significantly changed forest composition and openness....
    However, the crucial question for ecologists is not whether Native Americans modified their environment (they undoubtedly did), but how significant these effects were relative to natural agents such as lightning-induced fires, disease, storms, or climate change. Were these anthropogenic disturbances confined primarily to local areas next to streams, for example, or did the accumulated impact of small disturbances transform a continent? Despite the detailed picture of Native American practices, Bonnicksen never explicitly evaluates their ecological significance within a larger context....
    The debate over the influence of Native Americans upon the structure of presettlement North American forests has implications for resource managers and conservation ecologists. After all, an implicit goal of many current conservation efforts is to preserve or restore ecosystems to their "natural" presettlement condition, after which active human management should be minimized. This view is expressed in our management decision to set aside some portions of national forests as wildernesses. However, if Bonnicksen is correct in his assertion that Native Americans fundamentally transformed North American ecosystems, then maintaining them in their presettlement appearance will, on the contrary, require continued and active management.
    America’s Ancient Forests does well to call attention to this debate, but it is too strongly tilted in favor of anthropogenic effects to be read uncritically. The most compelling feature of the book is the numerous and well-integrated eyewitness accounts of the American forests and Native American land-use practices. However, the writing is choppy at times, and the book suffers from a lack of accompanying figures....

Bonnicksen's biggest problem has been his long-term advocacy for "continued and active management." He has been the subject of unrestrained attacks as noted in 2006:

    Ten distinguished professors from across the United States have issued an open letter to the media supporting Texas A&M University Professor Emeritus Thomas Bonnicksen and criticizing three professors with differing views for trying to stifle the debate over forest management.
    "Their attack is a violation of professional standards of conduct in science: the free exchange of ideas and collegiality among scholars," the professors say in an open letter to the media. "We adamantly oppose any effort to stifle his contribution to the debate on proper management of our nation's forests."
    The professors are from Yale University, University of California, Berkeley, Humboldt State University, Clemson University and the universities of Minnesota, Tennessee and the University of Washington. They say they are appalled at an open letter to the media published recently by three professors and an adjunct faculty member that attacked Dr. Bonnicksen.

The reality facing Californians (and other Americans) is a costly one consisting of a need to fund
  • adaptation through land use planning leading to the engineering of resilience into high-fire risk communities or not build such communities by building alternative desirable and affordable housing elsewhere, and
  • rescuing our forests, at least as much as possible in the face inevitable Climate Change, through what  Bonnicksen terms "Restoration Forestry." 
What Bonnicksen describes as "Restoration Forestry" is theoretically the policy of professional foresters. But Bonnicksen knows they have a problem. He doesn't think Californians (or anyothers) are going to go without a new iPhone every year and instead shell out that $800-$1,000 annually to fund through taxes "Restoration Forestry." In truth, he just doesn't believe that our liberalism extends very deeply into our wallets. He's correct, of course.

So he has a plan that would prevent the situation like Paradise where the 2000 trees per acre have been reduced by fire to the point that his 60-80 trees per acre to be maintained also are gone. It's one of those plans that neither political side in the forest management political argument will embrace because they don't trust each other. It is available online in the form of a booklet in PDF format created ten years ago in 2008 Protecting Communities and Saving Forests:

Until something like his proposal is put into effect, neighborhoods and even whole communities will regularly disappear in flames and people will die.

All of this has given Donald Trump just enough space in which to tweet again on the subject of Democrats failing to manage the forests. Ironically, it is a failure only in the context of the impacts of Climate Change which Trump won't acknowledge.

But when it comes to action he needs his National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) with the cooperation of his U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and his U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule for Model Year 2021–2026 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks acknowledges a 4.387°C (7.876°F) global temperature rise by 2100, a near worst case scenario.

It is a failure across both parties, really a generational failure. As I've noted here before, Al Gore's campaign on climate policy began 40 years ago.  He..., well, kids....  My generation failed him and you.

And it appears that we haven't done any better with regard to California's forests which are dying as can be seen in this photo from an April 2017 piece on the Pacific Crest Trail Association's website:

As explained in that post:

    Our forests are dying. ...Notice how the vast conifer ocean that we live within for so many miles is rapidly changing. Look closely and you’ll see.
    A decade ago, I saw it on my PCT thru-hike. Two decades ago, as a tenderfoot scout, a naturalist had me touch the trees so that I could see what was already happening....
    Ozone from our cars and industries, lingering low to the ground, is one of the most toxic pollutants affecting our forests.... This pollution causes ozone mottling in which needles drop from the trees.
    ...With our changing forests, we’re all in this together....
    Experts based in the Vallejo, Calif., Forest Service office that manages that Pacific Crest Trail fly small planes across California to survey the extent of the damage. The agency estimates that 102 million trees have died across all ownership boundaries in California since 2010. In 2016 alone, 62 million trees died.

    In 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown called a state of emergency, saying this was “the worst epidemic of tree mortality” the state has ever seen. More funds flow in, state laws are passed, actions explored. It’s all hands on deck. Gov. Brown issued an executive order and established the Tree Mortality Task Force. The task force was the nexus for the U.S. Forest Service, local governments, public utility providers and other stakeholders to combine efforts and work collaboratively for the greater good.
    “These dead and dying trees continue to elevate the risk of wildfire, complicate our efforts to respond safely and effectively to fires when they do occur, and pose a host of threats to life and property across California,” said Tom Vilsack, U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama in a November 2016 press release.
    Public safety is a top priority. State and federal land managers must cope with increasingly massive wildfires that sweep through dead or weakened forests, especially in the urban-wildland interface where so many have recently built homes. Their job is to ensure that roads and other crucial infrastructure remain safe. Recreation sites – trails such as the PCT – are often closed after a fire because of safety concerns.

This "we're all in this together" effort has seen some success as the Tree Mortality Task Force has removed more than 1.2 million dead or dying trees from the state’s forests since 2015. In May after the release of an alarming 350-page report by the California Environmental Protection Agency that documents the ruinous domino effect of climate change Governor Brown issued executive order will launch a slate of projects to improve forest conditions and increase fire protection, including a doubling of the amount of land managed by controlled burns, tree thinning and other forest-management tactics.

Still, there was this (click on it to go the website where you can download numerous documents and meeting agendas):

The draft document lays out goals to address the myriad of forest health/wildfire issues with programs to be in place within five years. The October 29, 2018, date with a five-year timeline certainly is frustrating when one considers it in the context of the quote above: "Two decades ago, as a tenderfoot scout, a naturalist had me touch the trees so that I could see what was already happening...." And Bonnicksen's pamphlet was printed 10 years ago!

It is, however, among the many California government programs for adaptation to Climate Change which the Trump Administration says doesn't exist (except to put in place policy acknowledging it will have reached a near worst case scenario by 2100).

Except that draft document will now face political scrutiny in California and Washington. So as our communities burn up and people die, we'll be deciding how to fund the programs, if we are going to fund them.

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