COVER STORY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Californian wildfires: the causes
, November 15, 2003
While fierce desert winds, drought and arson have been blamed for the wildfires which took 20 lives and destroyed over 2000 homes in southern California last month, the underlying causes - the failure to conduct fuel-reduction burns, under pressure from American greenie groups such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society - have received little attention.
Southern California, like much of Australia, is subject to periodic droughts and scorching summer winds.
It has also had an increasing number of new homes built in forest areas, making them highly vulnerable to bushfires.Campaigns
However, environmental organisations like the Sierra Club, America's largest environmental organisation, have conducted campaigns to prevent fire tracks being built and against controlled logging in the forests, in order to protect what it calls "wild forests" and old-growth trees.
In California, it has supported the Democratic Party, which in turn has enforced strict controls on the operation of the US Forest Service.
The American Wilderness Society has targeted the timber industry, alleging that its operations in US forests has aggravated the risk of fire. It has also argued that the solution to forest fires is to remove people and homes from the vicinity of bushfire-prone areas.
The result has been predictable.
In the San Bernardino Mountains, east of Los Angeles, people have been warning for months that a disaster was waiting to happen.
One report quoted a private forester from another part of California, who was aghast in September when he saw the fire danger in the San Bernardino Mountains, some 100 km east of Los Angeles, and home to some 80,000 people. He called it a "disaster waiting to happen."
Like other foresters who toured the area, John Mount of Southern California Edison knew instantly that a terrible fate awaited the thick, dead and dying forest at Lake Arrowhead, within the San Bernardino Mountains.
Lake Arrowhead is a stunning mountain community located in the heart of the San Bernardino National Forest.
The Lake Arrowhead area began developing in the 1890s. Since that time, it has become a popular resort and vacation location.
Plagued by drought and insect infestation, the mountains had become a vast expanse of tangled firewood. "I've never seen a forest quite like that," said Mount, whose work has made Southern California Edison's forest at Shaver Lake one of the healthiest private forests in the Sierra Nevada.
"The fire hazard was frightening," he said. "There are hundreds and hundreds of homes. It was truly a nightmare."
He added, "When forests are in this overgrown condition, the natural facts of life in the West - fires, dry spells and insect infestations - cause the kind of destruction now seen in the San Bernardino area.
Mount said the San Bernardino forest was dying: "If you have four or six or 10 times the natural number of trees per acre competing for water, it doesn't take long to deplete the water when a dry spell happens. Once the trees are stressed from lack of water, they become vulnerable to insects. A lot of trees have died from beetle infestation."
Martin Esparza, a US Forest Service spokesman, said of the wildfires, "Some of these places do not have any recorded history of fire". Vast swaths of the San Bernardino forest, an area of some 400,000 hectares, have not been logged for more than a century.
Over recent months, environmentalists have also been campaigning against the Bush Administration's Healthy Forests Initiative, which will permit logging in forests to reduce the amount of combustible timber on which wildfires feed.
The campaign by the Sierra Club against logging in forests is based on a collection of lies, including the claim that forest tracks - needed to fight forest fires - are bad, and that logging for timber increases the risk of wildfire.
Sierra has also campaigned against giving the US Forest Service the principal role in determining whether timber logging should be permitted in vulnerable areas, instead proposing that an effective veto should be given to environmental groups.
It claims that President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative will allowing the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to give away trees to logging companies as payment for any management activity, including logging on public lands, and creating a powerful new incentive to log old growth, and other commercially valuable forests.
Exactly the same arguments have been successfully used in Australia, over the past decade.
The effects in Australia have been catastrophic, as large areas of forest have been effectively "locked up", preventing any effective initiatives to control bushfires, and removing one of the main sources of fire-fighters - those who work in forest industries.