| Sept 1
Sept 1 A cluster of controlled fire and
tree-thinning projects approved by forestry officials but never
funded might have slowed the progress of the massive Rim Fire in
California, a wide range of critics said this weekend.
The massive blaze at the edge of Yosemite National Park in
the Sierra Nevada mountains has scorched an area larger than
many U.S. cities - with some of that land in the very location
pinpointed by the U.S. Forest service for eight projects aimed
at clearing and burning brush and small trees that help fuel
The projects, which were approved by the U.S. Forest Service
but never funded by Congress, would have thinned the woods in
about 25 square miles (65 square km) in the Groveland District
of the Stanislaus National Forest, much of which was incinerated
by the Rim Fire.
About 9,000 acres (3,642 hectares) were suitable to be
deliberately burned as fire prevention buffer zones in 2012, the
Forest Service said in a document provided to Reuters.
But reductions in funding for fire prevention efforts by
Congress in recent years coupled with stringent air quality
standards that limit the timeframe for such burns have hampered
efforts to carry them out on a larger scale.
Last year, the Forest Service had funding to burn 449 acres
(182 hectares) in the Groveland District but did not reach that
target, said District Ranger Maggie Dowd.
The wildfire is the sixth-largest on record in California.
It burned over 220,000 acres (89,000 hectares) over the past two
weeks while penetrating Yosemite National Park and threatening
to befoul the Hetch Hetchy reservoir providing the lion's share
of water to San Francisco.
"This is a colossal unfunded backlog of critically important
fuel reduction work," said John Buckley, executive director of
the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and a former
Forest Service fire fighter. The projects "would have inarguably
made the Rim Fire far easier to contain, far less expensive and
possibly not even a major disaster."
Over the past several years, wildfires in the U.S. West have
become increasingly frequent and at times deadly. Earlier this
year, 19 firefighters were killed in a blaze in Arizona, and
wildfires have raged in several states, including Nevada, Alaska
and New Mexico.
MORE ACTIVE WILDFIRES
Federal fire figures show an average of 7.6 million acres
(3.1 million hectares) charred per year between 2004 and 2012,
up from 3.6 million acres (1.46 million hectares) annually in
the preceding 20 years.
Part of the problem, experts and many fire officials say, is
that funding has been low for the controlled burns and
forest-thinning work that makes it harder for a wildfire to
In recent years, Jarvis said, the trend has been to shift
money from fire prevention to firefighting.
"We've got to invest up front in terms of controlling and
managing these fires," said Jonathan Jarvis, director of the
National Park Service from his smoke-filled post in Yosemite
National Park. "Just waiting for the big fire and then throwing
everything you've got at it makes no sense."
The massive blazes are fueled by high temperatures, said
U.S. Forest Service geographer Carl Skinner.
Mike Albrecht, co-owner of the logging company Sierra
Resource Management, which operates on public land in the Sierra
Nevada mountains said that the backlogged projects would likely
have helped limit the Rim Fire.
The "one-two punch" of thinning the forest through logging
and prescribed burns is essential for stemming the tide of
catastrophic wildfires across the American West, he said.
Craig Thomas, conservation director for the environmental
coalition group Sierra Forest Legacy, said such a course would
help reduce the intensity of wildfires enough to spare the
largest trees, while clearing space and providing nutrients for
grasses and wildflowers.
In addition to perennial funding shortfalls for prevention
efforts, Thomas faults federal and state air quality regimes
that limit the timeframe for prescribed burns by counting the
smoke they generate along with industrial and auto emissions -
while not counting the smoke from an actual wildfire.
There is also skepticism over the relative importance of
planned burning among some lawmakers, including Congressman Tom
McClintock, a third-term conservative Republican in whose
district the Rim Fire has burned.
More dire than a backlog of Forest Service controlled burns,
McClintock says, is the precipitous, 25-year decline in logging
of bigger, money-making trees on public lands.
"If we were harvesting the same amount of timber we once
did, we'd have fewer fires but also a revenue stream for the
treatment of many thousands of acres (hectares) that we're not
treating today," he said.
Dowd, the Forest Service Ranger, said that with containment
lines built around less than half of the still-burning Rim Fire,
it is too early to know how much the prevention projects might
But she said that the several dozen acres of prescribed
burns carried out in her district over the past two years, are
"It's not enough," Dowd said.