Forest fires are growing more frequent and intense around the country, and all signs indicate that they’re just going to continue getting worse in the years to come. A variety of factors have influenced this troubling trend – climate change and pests like beetles among them – but one of the biggest ways we can fight back is a technique as old as human civilization. We need better managed forests, including careful prescribed burning, and that means creating more jobs for foresters.
Bay Nature, a magazine based in Northern California, recently published a piece on an unusual nonprofit in Calaveras County that could serve as a model for the rest of the country. Founded by former County Supervisor Steve Wilensky in 2004, Calave4ras Healthy Impact Products Solutions (CHIPS) provides forestry jobs for people who live in the fire-prone Sierra Nevada foothills. Many of them are members of local indigenous tribes, like the Washoe and Miwok.
“For millennia, Sierra Nevada forests were maintained by naturally occurring low-to-moderate severity fires. But during the 20th century, fire was uniformly suppressed. In response, the forests have become unnaturally dense and, with fuel build-up, more flammable and prone to massive, uncontrollable fires, like Butte, or like the Camp Fire, the state’s deadliest, which raged 150 miles north of Calaveras in 2018. Scientists expect a large portion of the Sierra will burn this century as climatic conditions become more conducive to fire — that is, drier and hotter. For CHIPS, climate change propels their work: it provides crews both with tasks for the foreseeable future and the sobering incentive to do them.”
The inclusion of tribe members is important because it allows them to play an integral role in protecting ancestral sites. While fire suppression has been the United States Government’s favored means of management for decades, taking a more active stance brings back the practices indigenous people successfully used for millennia.
To those unfamiliar with the way it works, fighting fire with fire might sound like a strange tactic. But when they’re properly carried out, frequent prescribed burns can help eliminate pests like tree-killing beetles as well as dead plants that act like tinder on a hot day.
The aim of CHIPS is to restore forests back to a healthy balance while alleviating poverty in rural areas where jobs can be hard to find. They use the principles of sustainable forest management to determine which trees and brush are more fire-resistant and which should be cleared.
“Wilensky points to the largest trees. The crews leave those alone, he explains, because their thick bark resists fire, and they store more carbon than small trees. CHIPS crews aim to restore variability in species and tree size – a kind of forest mosaic – because it reflects the mixed-conifer forest that settlers would have encountered and that the Washoe lived in for millennia. “We’re serious. We have a good scientific basis to what we’re doing,” Wilensky says. Come winter, the piles will be burned, and the dangerous fuels cleared out. “There’s a lot of hope that we can get a handle on this, at least in this neighborhood.”
It’s an interesting project that could certainly be replicated in other places where forest fires are a major concern. We’ve previously written about how working forests can help support rural populations, as well.
Read the rest of the piece at Bay Nature.