California timber industry may be a 'piece of the puzzle' to help reduce state's raging wildfires

Key Points
  • As California looks for answers to reduce wildfire risk, there's more debate about thinning the overly dense forest lands.
  • Gov. Jerry Brown spoke this week during a wildfire press update about the need "to do planned burnings" and "to thin out the forest."
  • Some state legislators believe California's private timber industry, which has seen a decline in timber harvesting since the 1990s, could be part of the solution.
  • The CEO of the state's forestry trade group says the industry is prepared to help thin out forests but also has a few suggestions, including regulatory relief.
Firefighters try to control a back burn as the Carr fire continues to spread towards the towns of Douglas City and Lewiston near Redding, California on July 31, 2018. 
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images

As California wildfires rage, politicians, timber companies and environmentalists are debating whether to thin overly dense forest lands that fuel the state's deadly infernos.

About one-third of California is covered by forests, most of it owned by the U.S. government. Last year was the most destructive and deadly wildfire season in the state's history. And 2018 through July is one-third higher in acreage burned than a year ago, according to Cal Fire.

Some believe the state's timber industry could be part of the solution by selectively thinning forests of trees. Timber harvesting has fallen sharply in California since the 1990s.

Despite opposition from some environmental groups, there's talk of the need to remove more barriers to logging given that wildfires have become bigger, deadlier and faster moving. California's timber laws are considered the most stringent in the nation.

"You've got a lot of fuel, you've got dead and dying trees, and a lot of hot weather — and it's a recipe for disaster," said Assemblyman Jim Wood of Healdsburg in Sonoma County, a member of the Senate and Assembly conference committee on wildfire preparedness and response. He represents a district with forested areas where October's wine country firestorms ripped through neighborhoods and destroyed thousands of homes and claimed 31 lives.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that California has 129 million dead trees, most in the central and southern Sierras. Insects and drought are to blame for the high numbers.

California requires investor-owned utilities to buy biomass power from dead trees in high-hazard forested zones.

"I don't think we're ever going to completely prevent forest fires, but I think we can mitigate the damage that they cause," said Wood. "It's a strategy and it will take resources. As a state, we haven't committed as much to that, and that's part of the reason we find ourselves where we are."

'Wake-up call for California'

According to the California Forestry Association, tree density in the Sierra Nevada is too high when compared with the region's historical rates, creating an elevated fire hazard. It estimates there was an average of 40 trees per acre in the Sierras roughly 150 years ago but puts that number today at hundreds of trees per acre.

"Fire used to naturally go through the forest, and with 40 trees per acre, the fire will mostly stay on the ground, without creating a catastrophe," said Rich Gordon, president and CEO of the association, which represents the timber industry. "This has been a wake-up call for California. We have to do something different to prevent these catastrophic fires."

As Gordon sees it, large tree growth plus a history of fire suppression and reduced timber activity have created an unnatural setting of continuous fuels. Moreover, he said it's led to too many trees competing for water during droughts.

"The industry is certainly prepared to assist and encourage and support the thinning of our forests," said Gordon. "We can actually have more resilient, fire resistant forests if we thin them a little bit."

Wood agrees that the selective removal of trees to reduce fuels and a more robust timber strategy in the state "can be a piece of the puzzle" to reduce the fire risk.

Wildland-urban interface

At the same time, the Democratic lawmaker is concerned about the fire risk for communities and subdivisions that are developed right up against wildlands or forests. The deadly Carr fire in Shasta County is the sixth-largest fire in California history and last month destroyed more than 1,000 homes — some in or near fire-prone wildlands known for oak trees and flammable chaparral.

An estimated 3.6 million California homes are built in what's called wildland-urban interface, and more than 1 million are considered as "high or very high fire risk."

The federal government is the largest owner of forest lands in California, holding about 57 percent of the roughly 33 million acres. Families, individuals, companies or Native American tribes own about 40 percent of forested land in California, while local, state and land trusts own the remainder.

Most of the timber companies operating in California today are family owned or part of family trusts. Those companies primarily get trees from their own lands by filing a harvest plan with the state for lumber production or through the sale of trees through federal forest programs, including some that allow them to salvage trees after forest fires.

California has no commercial timber operations on state-owned lands.

Scarred hills remain after the Carr Fire west of Redding, California, U.S. July 28, 2018. 
Bob Strong | Reuters

On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown held a press conference to discuss wildfires and said there was a need for the state "to do planned burnings" as part of forest management and "to thin out the forest." In May, the governor issued an executive order aimed at protecting communities from wildfire, and it included doubling the land actively managed through vegetation thinning, controlled fires and reforestation.

Push for regulatory relief

Meantime, the state forestry association wants to change rules and regulations to make it easier for private industry to thin forested land. The group also suggests increased logging could benefit rural areas in Northern California where poverty and job losses have been problems.

Gordon, the trade group's CEO, insists the industry isn't pushing for more clear-cutting of forested lands — a practice the Sierra Club opposes. Rather, he said, the industry advocates "selectively removing smaller trees on a landscape so that the bigger trees (which are more resilient to fire and store more carbon) can survive and do better."

Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California, said the environmental group is not opposed to what she calls "selective logging and those sort of things. We're opposed to going in and unnecessarily disrupting the environment and doing forest management practices that will lead to worse fires, and some forest practices do."

She said the practice of clear-cutting and planting trees all at the same time creates added risk for the forest because "you don't have diversity. That makes them more susceptible to fires. Older trees tend to burn less and slower. So you want to have a lot of diversity."

Some conservative lawmakers believe environmental groups share blame for the state's current fire risk.

"Extreme environmental groups have for years stated that we shouldn't thin our forests because of the benefits of carbon that is stored," said Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach. "However, the carbon that is currently being released with these out-of-control wildfires is dramatically greater than we would have if our forests were responsibly managed."

Bringing back timber industry

"The private sector is the answer," he said. "We need to bring back our timber industry to clean up our forests for the safety of the entire state. The industry can ensure that our forests are sustainably managed and healthy."

Allen, a former gubernatorial candidate, contends that Democrats share some blame for the fire risk due to policies over the years that have "regulated the timber industry out of California and denied access of Northern Californians to their own natural resources."

Most of the lumber used in California construction today is brought in from Oregon, Washington or other sources. The cost to harvest timber in California can be substantially higher than other Western states due to regulations.

"It's almost cost prohibitive currently for you to go in and remove any timber (in California)," said Gordon. "If we were to go in and do some thinning, we could produce more California product that could then be used by builders in the state."