(WATCH) Fighting Fires

(Originally aired Sept. 26, 2021)

Wildfires in the west keep setting records, and keep costing U.S. taxpayer money. Now, California and Oregon are finally taking a look at tactics that experts say have been successful for decades in the east. Lisa Fletcher investigates the big burn.

Not all fires in a forest are bad, particularly here, in South Carolina.

Anneta Pritchard: This is a tree farm, sure is.

Where Anneta Pritchard and a crew from the State Forestry Commission respond to a request. Yes, a request to set this private land on fire.

Pritchard: Whenever you burn on a regular basis, it reduces the chance of there being a catastrophic wildfire.

The crew is doing that with a “prescribed burn,” a fire set and contained to a defined area, under specific weather conditions.

Most of the state’s forest land is in private hands. Individuals and families control more than 60% of the total.

Pritchard: If a fire was to come in here, say in the summer by lightning or anything like that, the intensity is going to be much less than if it had never been burned.

South Carolina is a leader in this practice, recently conducting prescribed burns on more than 340-thousand acres of land. That’s more than what 9 western states burned, combined.

Ron Holt, Pritchard’s colleague at the South Carolina Forestry Commission, says a contrary mindset in the west may contribute to what fuels those catastrophic blazes.

Ron Holt: Land managers, who try to burn, whether it’s a private or federal, they have to go through so much, regulations and get approvals. And by the time they go through the process, that much more fuel has built up on the ground. And the land manager may have to start over with the burn plan

Holt also has experience fighting wildfires in the west, where over the past five years, almost 25% less timber has been harvested and processed into products than on the east coast.

Ron Holt: Even if you wanted to thin out some of the timber to reduce the fuels or some of the brush, a lot of that infrastructure is gone. Here in the Southeast, especially in South Carolina, probably relatively within an hour, you have three paper mills plus some lumber mills. We have a lot of that infrastructure here versus the West Coast

Lisa: If you were going to give a grade to the Federal government

Representative David Valadao of California says there’s a lot of room to improve.

Rep. David Valadao: Well, right now an F.

Rep. Valadao: Fingers can be pointed in all directions. The state plays a role in it, obviously the federal government plays a role in it. And I think our locals have to play a stronger role. It really does require all of us to come to the table and actually come up with solutions to manage a forest properly.

Valadao represents California’s Central Valley, situated between the Sierra Nevada and the coast mountain ranges. Smoke from fires, including last year’s “Creek Fire,” descend on his district, choking breathable air and shutting down manufacturing of solar panels.

Lisa: The climate is entirely different. The amount of rain annually is entirely different. But is there something to be learned from the way forests are managed on the east coast that might benefit the west coast?

Rep. Valadao: There’s always something to be learned. The number of trees that are there struggling for the limited amount of water that we’re getting this year. It forces trees to compete. It just turns the whole forest to a tinderbox.

A cycle, exacerbated by the bark beetle, as we learned in 2016, when we went to Big Sur, California, and met Fire Captain Mike Lindbery.

Mike Lindberry: They’re estimating 60-million trees are dead standing right now all over the state.

Lisa Fletcher: And what is the translation for a firefighter?

Lindberry: The translation for a firefighter is one, faster moving more deadly fires and the fact that even while they’re fighting these fires there’s the danger of the trees dropping on them at any point.

Two years later, California’s deadliest wildfire, known as the “Camp Fire” scorched more than 150 thousand acres, and killed 85 people. The devastation spurred scientists, government officials and a variety of industry leaders to come together last spring to find innovative solutions to avoiding costs of the most destructive fires in the west.

They came up with a set of recommendations. The most important of which: establishing one central hub to coordinate all U.S. wildfire efforts. Right now, as Ron Holt points out, no single agency has all the information, making it next to impossible to come up with a game plan, placing the right resources in the right places.

Ron Holt: It’s basically a patchwork quilt of management ideas going into one plan, especially on public lands

President Biden recently proposed paying for nationwide mitigation by setting aside $1.7 billion of a multi-trillion-dollar budget submitted to Congress for the 2022 fiscal year. None of which is earmarked to create a centralized unit to coordinate national wildfire prevention and response.

Sharyl (on-camera): So federal agencies and federal taxpayers are constantly asked to kick in for what’s going wrong in California, when they have so many problems. Is anyone in Congress looking at the prescribed burns strategy?

Lisa (on-camera): Actually Yeah. There’s a bipartisan group in the Senate that is looking for ways to encourage their use, but because of Covid-19 and concerns around firefighters and concerns that smoke can make people more vulnerable, they actually suspended it for a second year in a row.

Watch story here.

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