It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when and how it will burn. Our local forests evolved with fire. Fires will always occur naturally from lightning, and human caused fires occur by accident, through negligence and sometimes intentionally.
Eliminating wildfires is not a realistic goal. However, we can greatly influence how intensely wildfires burn and affect our forests and water and air quality by manipulating the fuel loading in the forest, especially near the things we want to protect from loss. Many entities working together to implement meaningful long-term management actions are required to fully change the current regular catastrophic wildfire conditions we have been experiencing.
Current forest conditions don’t replicate natural conditions that occurred prior to European settlement of our country when forests were widely spaced, healthy and resilient. Tree ring and fire scar evidence shows that prior to settlement, our local forests in the Truckee and Carson River watersheds were exposed to a fire frequency of 5-to-15-year occurrence intervals. Fire intensities were relatively low and the large scale forest fire conflagrations that are common now rarely occurred because overly dense tree regeneration was controlled and ground surface fuel buildup was removed during frequent low intensity burning.
During the 1860s to 1890s, our local forests were used to power the industrial needs of the mining boom known as the Comstock era which greatly changed forest structure and how the forests were impacted by wildfire. Forests in a 300,000-acre footprint of the Comstock logging for Virginia City area mines were liquidated to supply lumber, railroad ties, mining timbers and fuelwood for the steam engines that powered the sawmills and railroads.
There were more than 50 sawmills between Carson City and Reno during the Comstock with approximately 2 billion board feet of timber harvested.
Our watersheds are at high risk of loss from severe wildfire which impacts all of our communities. We as a society must decide if we are willing to do the work and allocate the necessary money needed to keep our forests green, healthy and resilient to recurring threats of large wildfires and protect our air and water quality. The current level of management efforts to reduce wildfire potential is not near enough for what is needed. Forest Service Chief Christiansen recently stated the Forest Service must increase pace and scale “2-4 times” the amount of treatment that would currently be done over the next 10 years.Excessive drought, heat, and weather extremes combine to cause the large wildfires we have been seeing continually increase in recent fire seasons. To create healthy resilient forests and reduce large scale wildfires, the number of acres treated needs to significantly increase and include ongoing forest management maintenance followed by prescribed underburning to reintroduce periodic low intensity ground surface fire.
Available funding is a major factor in the amount of acres that can be managed for healthy forests and to protect our watersheds from catastrophic loss from severe wildfire. One of the key factors in forest management cost is the distance from the forests needing management to a processing facility for the forest products. Long haul distances to sawmills and other processing facilities can make it too expensive to be able to do the forest management required. In California, 114 wood processing facilities have closed since 1981, including ones that serviced our local area. A local wood processing facility could be one primary action that would allow for successful implementation of management to protect our local forested watersheds.
The Truckee and Carson River watersheds contain enough public forested land to support such a facility. One example that could be investigated for our area is a cross laminated timber facility. CLT panels are used in constructing multiple story buildings as an alternative to steel and concrete structures and have a much smaller energy and carbon footprint than conventional buildings.
Healthy forests that are resistant to large wildfires affect many entities and the public. Forest management and it’s benefits to our local communities is not isolated to just the federal and state land management agencies that own the largest swaths of local forests.
The most effective outcome for protecting our local forests and air and water quality would come from coordinated and cooperative involvement by many entities for implementation of a major increase in acres of forest management treatment. This includes forest product industry experts, federal, state and local water, wildlife, fire, utility, and forestry agencies, the public, and research by the University of Nevada and Desert Research Institute for things such as best options for economic feasibility for building a local processing plant.
Urgent action is needed to start a comprehensive assessment to evaluate and prioritize long-term management actions needed to significantly improve the current hazardous fire situation of our forests and begin implementation. Major negative impacts to our air and water quality and our forested landscapes will continue unchecked without serious coordinated commitment to action.
Ed DeCarlo is a retired forester living in Carson City.