California forests have long been a disaster waiting to happen. Forest density, antiquated forest practices, stressed and dead trees as a result of bug infestation, conflicts between state and federal government, and private property owners wanting to live close to the “wildland-urban interface” are just a few of the problems.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk with longtime California environmental reporter, Julie Cart, about just how bad the problem is and what is being done to prevent more death and destruction.
She explains that a full 30 percent of California is forested. Of this total, 60 percent is owned by the federal government, 2 percent by the state of California, and the rest is owned either privately or by local governments. Each has a different approach to dealing with the problem.
California has an estimated 129 million dead trees, an acknowledged factor in spreading wildfires, Cart says. The cost for removing a single dead tree is approximately $1,000, and the optics of cutting down trees, even dead ones, in a state with strong environmental rules make remediation even more difficult.
The impact of climate change on forest fires involves a deadly feedback loop. So many of the fires are a direct result of extended drought related to climate change. But in torching so many dead trees, a severe fire season of one or two months can release enormous amounts of carbon into the air — more than that emitted by all the cars in California each year — which significantly adds to the buildup of greenhouse gases fueling climate change.
Last year’s fires cost over $9 billion; this year the toll will be even higher. In both dollars and lives lost. Cart points out that while Cal Fire and the US Forest Service have vast resources, so much of those resources are diverted to firefighting, leaving little time or money to do the necessary work of prevention.
Cart suggests that perhaps the real solution is simply to tell people, as they do in Australia, that if they choose to live in certain areas, they cannot expect a fire truck to roll up the driveway during the next disaster. They will have to learn how to fend for themselves.