Maria Gutzeit: Wildfires and political whims


In June we arrived to choking smoke at the start of a long-anticipated two-week vacation to Utah and Arizona. In Dixie National Forest, the Brian Head Fire was growing exponentially.

As of July 7, the fire exceeds 70,000 acres and has burned for three weeks after being started by a man clearing weeds with a torch. He reportedly did this even after being reprimanded several times and after the state posted restrictions on that practice.

Of course, living in Santa Clarita, we wouldn’t dream of burning weeds with a torch in fire season, but we do drive cars, which started multiple recent fires in California, including the Placerita fire and the nearby Manzanita fire. In fact, the National Park Service reports 90 percent of wildland fires are human caused.

I don’t know the funding situation in Utah, but living in a wildland interface here in Santa Clarita, I happily pay a little bit more on my property tax for the wonderful services of the L.A. County Fire Department.

As of 2010, L.A. County fire had the largest publicly funded multi-mission fire department aviation program in the country, ranked both the busiest and safest. Too often we get to see their aerial crews line up in our skies, but it means we are likely safe.

As we drove away on our June vacation, in a heat wave, I thought, “If there’s a fire, L.A. County Fire can handle it and, if not, we have everything we need with us (family and dogs) and we have insurance. Two days later we got a message that there was a fire within a mile of our home.

We turned to Twitter and Inciweb to try to figure out the situation with the Brian Head fire, check road closures and see if we would be in danger. There was good information but, sadly, too much politicking as people tried to figure out if their properties and loved ones were safe.

The Sierra Club loves bark beetles! The forest service isn’t funded well! People shouldn’t live in the woods!

One-liners play well, but if you talk to the experts, there is no one solution to wildfires. Sure, we need forest management and thinning of trees, and yes, some of that is probably held up by environmental regulations.

But a CalFire presentation I previously attended at the Association of California Water Agencies showed how complex the situation is. Water utilities want to reduce severe fire because unchecked ash and debris flows clog watersheds and reduce reservoir volume.

Even after securing tree removal permits, agencies recovering from fires in Northern California found that there was no place to take the cut-down trees because there are very few wood processers in California due to changes in energy subsidies.

What a tangled web! CalFire stated that without thinning, too many trees compete for the same nutrients and water, making the forest weaker, especially in drought.

As of November 2016, the Forest Service reported an estimated 102 million dead trees in the Sierras. Red, dead trees are clearly visible to anyone driving in areas like Kernville and Giant Sequoia National Monument.

Plenty of problems have been highlighted by forestry experts. Historic swings in philosophy have, over various decades, favored clear cutting or no-cutting, let-it-burn versus fire suppression, selling timber versus recreational uses, and it seems the Forest Service has had to reinvent itself over and over.

Valiantly they continue, despite being an organization with a mission subject to political whims. Indeed, we saw a microcosm of this on our vacation. One forestry area was actively working on debris removal and thinning. When I commented on this to a ranger, they responded proudly, yet reported that another adjacent area “doesn’t even touch dead trees that litter the Arizona Trail (an 800-mile-long scenic trail.)”

Forest management takes money. Rainfall and climate are impossible to control. Some try to control humans with regulations, but clearly we still find ways to do things like burning weeds with a torch, crashing cars and lighting unpermitted fires.

Perhaps there is a not-so-subtle battle between environmentalists and “everyone else” or between advocates for local control and “big government.”

What is fairly clear is that things would improve if the alleged sides worked together instead of flinging zingers on Twitter or running to the courtroom. We all love the West. Few love choking smoke, property loss, and destruction of watersheds, habitats and recreational areas. Time to talk, anyone?

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected water official, and mom living in Santa Clarita.

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