8 Sep 2009, 4:29pm
Forestry education
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World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492

John L. Sorenson, Carl L. Johannessen. 2009. World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492. iUniverse. ISBN: 978-0-595-52441-9

A book review by Mike Dubrasich

There exists a pernicious myth that American Indians were savages (noble or not) living in roving bands of hunter-gatherers, at one with Nature due to their lack of civilization and technical sophistication.

That myth has been exploded by cutting-edge anthropology, archaeology, and historical landscape geography.

Prior to Columbus’ “discovery” of the “New World”, human beings had lived and thrived in the Americas for 12,000 years or more. They built great cities such as Teotihuacan, which by 700 C.E. had an estimated population of 200,000 and was larger than Paris and London combined four hundred years later!

Pre-Columbian Americans developed writing, mathematics, astronomy, and agriculture. Cropping systems were in use as much as 9,000 years ago [here] and had spread across much of both North and South America by 5,800 years ago [here].

People built incredible earthworks including terraces, raised fields, canals and irrigation systems for agriculture [here]. People modified soils for food cropping across vast territories such as Amazonia [here].

And pre-Columbian people developed food crops such corn (maize), potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, pumpkins (all edible squashes), sweet potatoes, sunflowers, peppers, pineapples, watermelons, strawberries, and pecans. All edible beans except horse beans and soybeans were developed in the pre-Columbian Americas.

It is widely believed that these food crops, common around the world today, were not known outside the Americas until Columbus and other contemporary explorers brought them to Europe 500 years ago. But if so, how do you explain this?

This wall sculpture from the Hoysala Dynasty Halebid temple at Somnathpur, Karnataka state, India, dates between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Among the numerous representations of maize ears, the shape of the ear, kernels off set in relation to those in adjacent rows, the presence of part of the husk, and other features ensure that no object other than an ear of maize could be represented. The mudra (sacred gesture) made by the figure’s hand underlines the sacred significance of the context and thus of maize. (Photograph by C. Johannessen.)

In World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 authors John L. Sorenson and Carl L. Johannessen present strong evidence that pre-Columbian Americans engaged in overseas trade:

People moved into America very early across the Bering Strait. By the fifth millennia B.C.E. tropical sailors brought diseases to America and took plants and animals in both directions.

Long before Columbus, tropical sailors carefully selected crops from New World highlands and shorelines, wet and dry climates, and took them to the Old World where they were grown in appropriate environments. Medicinal and psychedelic plants were traded and maintained in Egypt and Peru during separate 1,400-year periods. This implies that maritime trade was continuous.

In this groundbreaking book, learn about:

* 84 plants that were taken from the Americas to the Old World.
* What plants and animals were brought to the Americas.
* Why world trade was essential for transfer of so many.
* Interconnectedness of civilizations had to result from world trade.
* Dating of 18 species by archaeology with radio carbon shows dispersal.
* And much more!

Plants, diseases, and animals from America were distributed throughout the world, across the oceans before 1492. It is time for scientists, teachers, and students to reconsider their beliefs about the early history of civilization with World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492.

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The Liberal Stewardship Agenda Is Deliberate Failure

by bear bait

I am NOT a scientist. No credentials at all. But I can smell a smear job a mile away. The attacks on Bonnicksen are murders of character, murders of the messenger.

The first issue in fire in these United States is that since the coming of Europeans to this land, fires have been extinguished by accident or intent. The accident was the pandemics that were brought here, extinguishing the native population of humans who molded the landscape with set fire. The Euro-thought of metes and bounds, the descriptive and prescriptive ownership of land, its uses, and the concept of trespass, changed fire regimes if only because fire destroyed what were valuable assets in the mind’s eye of the new inhabitants. Fire as a landscape management tool used by man on this landscape for more than 10,000 years has been a victim of endemic racism that floated across the Atlantic on boats. It is still with us. PhD scholars still cannot fathom that man created the forests, shaped them, and tended the wild, not unlike the fields and forests of Europe. Can’t and won’t. Endemic Old Country racism won’t let them.

The huge disconnect by True Believers of the Gore Global Warming scenario (it is Sept 7, 62 degrees outside… snow forecast for the mountains) from the impacts of natural air inputs from earth sciences like wildland fire, volcanoes, organic decomposition, wind and currents working on the ocean biology, cannot be dismissed. The True Believers stated intent to make man the fall guy for every perceived change in local and global climate, is not science, nor does it serve the betterment of mankind. Academic science needs work. Boy oh howdy, does global warming serve that end.

We now have a self-appointed elite cadre of politically oriented humans, all packing personal baggage of some sort about their findings and educations, determined to demean and extinguish any and all “science” that does not meet their criteria of political (read financial) need at this time in this world. How we got here is by liberal educations at the University, where I saw recent numbers that over 95% of faculty identified themselves as liberals and supporting of the left, liberal agenda. It has become apparent, that earth science is no more than political science in drag and printed in the ever diminishing dead tree press.

Science today is about money, and money comes from government. Witness the Newport, Oregon landing of the West Coast hub for NOAA marine activities. Being billed as a job creator, it is nothing more than a move by a government agency to new offices, all paid for by tax monies. The new jobs are nothing more than a redistribution of wealth to a new area, by government. But the political take is still that of accomplishment, not unlike an eagle stealing a fish from an osprey, by local government. Science is not the reason for the move. Nor easier access to the North Pacific, since many safer, better developed, and more centrally located ports exist (like Seattle). It was a payoff to Lubchenco’s home base, to feather her nest after her stint as NOAA director is over.

When ten thousand or more years of directed, planned, and intentional land management, carried out by the burning brand in hand, is extinguished by racist invaders, you do know that there had to be a change in vegetation and the expression of ecosystems. New managers with a new agenda, and 500 years later the new agenda has been exposed as a failure. The blame has been worded as the failure of the land management agencies to allow fires to burn. Not a word about setting fires at provident times of the years to gain management goals.

The only way to regain that past management, and the forests defined by that activity, is to have a proactive plan in place and carry it out. That we now have to do it with very restrictive job descriptions, planning sessions, with a human element grossly lacking in experience and direction, all now politically determined, is an indication that help is not on the way, and change is not on the way, and rhetoric is all that the citizenry might expect from our leaders in the present situation. Heralds for the present defective condition are all that we hear from on high. And there is a huge, well funded, non-profit machine in place to not change how we do things.

The solution is in the people. Leadership (by elected and appointed elites) has failed us. In time, I would hope concerned laymen might avail themselves to the “one pager” fire assessment program from the creators of the “Wildland Fire Economics Project” (did I get that name right?) to begin a process of assembling a record of fire impacts on the local community, and wherever else any one fire might have changed the local landscape, watersheds, habitats, and qualities.

The solutions won’t come from Academe. Academics are used by liberals to bolster their idea of the world, not from a science platform but from an idealist platform. They are bought and paid for by interests who use them to demean the rigor of science, employing the tactics of personal attack. Dueling academics are producing little good and lots of bad press.

A grassroots movement to record and document definitive, empirical wildland fire outcomes, in terms of dollars, is the best hope to change how we now do business in this climate of racist, dollar driven attacks on common sense from the liberal fire apologists.

When I think about how to change the landscape to one that humanity can live with, I often wonder what would happen if public lands were still public but managed by Native Americans in the old ways. At the very least, a pilot project in that vein on a defined area of magnitude might be worthwhile. Better that than this benign neglect scheme that is nothing more than serial conflagrations to no productive end.

Choking Smoke from LA Fires Denied By Enviro Wackos

W.I.S.E. announced the web publication of Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen’s Impacts of California Wildfires on Climate and Forests: A Study of Seven Years of Wildfires (2001-2007), FCEM Report No. 3 last month [here].

The Executive Summary and link to the full text are now posted at the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: Forest and Fire Sciences [here]. The Forest Carbon And Emissions Model Reports No. 1 and 2 are [here].

Last week the SoCal media reported on FCEM Report No. 3:

Study: Greenhouse gases from wildfires damaging

By BEN GOAD, Riverside Press-Enterprise, September 3, 2023 [here]

Wildfires raging across California have belched out hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases since the beginning of the century, significantly adding to the problem of global warming, a new study has concluded.

State and federal officials have speculated for years that increasingly long and severe fire seasons can be partly attributed to the effects of climate change.

But the study, released by forest expert and author Thomas Bonnicksen, is novel in that it suggests the trend isn’t a product of global warming — it’s causing it. The assertions have met with a mixture of interest and skepticism.

Between 2001 and 2007, fires in California torched about 4 million acres and spewed 277 million tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, Bonnicksen found.

That’s the equivalent of running all of California’s 14 million cars for about 3 1/2 years, according to the study.

“If we really are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the first place to look is to reduce the severity and extent of wildfires,” Bonnicksen said Thursday. “We could make a greater impact in the short run than we could ever make by converting to hybrid vehicles.”

Much of the carbon dioxide emitted during fires is later absorbed back into the vegetation as it grows back. But Bonnicksen contends that fires destroy more than 100,000 acres of forest in California every year, leaving less vegetation to absorb the growing amounts of pollutants.

Bonnicksen’s calculations, he said, don’t involve any new science, but rather reflect a combination of previously published and accepted formulas relating to the density and types of vegetation in forests, the amount of carbon they store and the wildfires that have torn through the state in recent years.

He proposes a far more aggressive federal policy of thinning the nation’s forests, and harvesting the wood for a wide variety of products. He also favors more replanting programs after fires, since dead, decaying trees also emit greenhouse gases long after the smoke has cleared.

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4 Sep 2009, 10:00am
Forestry education Saving Forests
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No Natural Fire Regimes in Old-Growth Redwood

In a stunning and gutsy scientific study, it has been revealed that old-growth redwood forests of California were dominated by anthropogenic (human-set) fires for hundreds and probably thousands of years.

Dr. Steven P. Norman (currently of the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station), working out of the U.S. Forest Service Redwood Sciences Laboratory in Arcata CA, has discovered that the historical fire frequency in old-growth redwood was cultural, not “natural”.

His paper, A 500-Year Record of Fire from a Humid Coast Redwood Forest, is in the form of a report to the Save the Redwoods League [here], the 90-year-old organization dedicated to saving redwoods. Interestingly, the verbiage from the Save the Redwoods League extols “naturalness”:

Since 1918, Save the Redwoods League has saved ancient redwood forests and redwood ecosystems to ensure that current and future generations can feel the awe and peace that these precious natural wonders inspire. We also save redwoods because they are rare — their natural range is only in central and northern California and southern Oregon — and because they are Earth’s tallest and some of the oldest and most massive living beings.

Yet the redwoods have been tended by human beings for millennia. Human burning on a frequent, seasonal basis in an eco-zone with little lightning kept redwoods free from severe fire as well as competition and allowed trees to reach phenomenal ages.

Absent frequent, ground-hugging, anthropogenic fire, infrequent severe, stand-replacing fire would have shortened tree life-spans considerably. Biologically, redwoods do not require long life spans to reproduce. There is no biological imperative for great ages. The long lives of redwood trees are an artifact of human intervention in the ecosystem, without which redwoods may have gone extinct during the Holocene.

We have not been given permission to post Dr. Norman’s paper in toto, but the abstract follows (at present the entire paper may be downloaded from the SRL site [here]):

California’s coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) forests have long been associated with moderately frequent to frequent fire, particularly in the southern and interior portions of the species range. The historical importance of fire in northern coast redwood forests is generally thought to be much less because lightning ignitions are rare, and cool coastal temperatures and summer fog ameliorate the fire hazard. Support for this climate-fire gradient hypothesis has been limited because of insufficient fire history data from the northern coast redwood range. Past efforts to test this hypothesis range-wide are made difficult because of methodological differences among studies and problems with scar preservation in redwood. This research revisits the fire history of an area thought to have experienced fire only a few times per millennium in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. I found that fire frequency was substantially more frequent than previously thought. Between 1700 and 1850, mean fire intervals within 0.25 to 1 ha sample areas varied from 11 to 26 years. Fire intervals did not correspond to a latitudinal, coast-interior or a topographically defined moisture gradient. Instead, patterns of fire frequency better fit a cultural burning gradient inferred from the ethnographic and historical record. Areas close to aboriginal villages and camps burned considerably more often than areas that were probably less utilized. Summer season fires, the ones most likely set by the Native Tolowa for resource needs, were 10 years shorter than the mean fire interval of autumn season fires. In the dryer eastern portion of the study area, frequent fire resulted in unimodal or bimodal pulses of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) establishment suggesting moderate to high fire severity. Near a Tolowa village site, a frequent fire regime before the late 1700s initiated a pulse of Douglas fir establishment that dominated the forest canopy for centuries; long after the village was abandoned, possibly due to epidemic disease. While variability in coastal fog-stratus and drought may also influence fire regimes, these relationships provide a weaker explanation than human ignition history. Variable human and climate influence on old-growth redwood fire regimes suggests that old growth redwood forests are not in equilibrium, but are dynamic due to a long history of variable human influence. Remnant old growth forests are likely to continue to evolve in response to human management. Efforts by managers to restore and sustain these remarkable forests can be enhanced by understanding how complex histories give rise to biodiversity. [emphasis added].

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1 Sep 2009, 7:13pm
Forestry education
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Insured Property Losses in Wildfires

An interesting article appeared today at News Insurances regarding the insured property damage done by large California wildfires.

How much California wildland fire could cost to insurer?

by Barbara Karouski, News Insurances, September 1, [here]

… Nine of the ten largest wildfires, in terms of insured property losses, occurred prior to 2007, according to ISO data. [Insurance Services Office, Inc. is a leading source of information about risk, here]. A 1991 wildfire in Oakland, California tops the list with $2.687 billion in insured losses in 2008 dollars. In October 2007 a series of wildfires broke out across Southern California, damaging thousands of homes and causing widespread evacuations. The largest of these fires, the October 21 Witch fire, resulted in $1.4 billion in insured losses and was the second most damaging wildfire since 1970, in 2008 dollars. …

The article included the following chart:

The ten most costly wildland fires in the United States

The losses listed are to insured private property only. They do not include public health costs, watershed damages, crop loss, or any of the myriad other categories of economic losses associated with wildfires.

In a recent paper, (Zybach, Bob, Michael Dubrasich, Gregory Brenner, and John Marker. 2009. U.S. Wildfire Cost-Plus-Loss Economics Project: The “One-Pager” Checklist. Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, Advances in Fire Practices, Fall 2009) [here] the authors claimed that wildfire costs-plus-losses can exceed suppression costs by a factor of 10 to 50 times.

I compiled from various sources the estimated suppression costs (ESC) of the five most recent fires on the list above, and divided the ISO estimated insured property loss (IPL) by the suppression costs. I used the “dollars when occurred” IPL values because the suppression costs were also given in “when incurred” dollars. Remember, the IPL is only a fraction of the total damages done by wildfires.

Witch Fire (2007) ESC: $18.0 million — IPL/ESC: 72

Cedar Fire (2003) ESC: $29.9 million — IPL/ESC: 35

Old Fire (2003) ESC:: $37.7 million — IPL/ESC: 26

Rodeo Chediski Fire (2002) ESC: $43.1 million — IPL/ESC: 3

Cerro Grande Fire (2000) ESC: $33.5 million — IPL/ESC: 4

The results confirm that the costs-plus-losses of wildfires are many times the suppression costs.

Further, the total losses in each of these fires far exceed the insured property losses. For instance, the Cerro Grande Fire is estimated to have inflicted total damages in excess of $1 billion [here].

The Rodeo Chediski Fire burned 400 insured homes, but it also consumed 467,066 acres of uninsured forest and woodland. The damages from that fire to timber, water, wildlife, and public health are not reflected in the insured property loss value. Hence the low ratio (3) is also not reflective of the total cost-plus-loss from that fire.

It appears that the estimated range of the ratio (i.e. that costs-plus-losses are 10 to 50 times suppression costs) as expressed in the paper cited is an underestimate. For some fires, the costs-plus-losses can be as much as 100 times the fire suppression expenses.

Forest Carbon Emissions Model Report No. 3

W.I.S.E. is pleased and honored to announce the web publication of Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen’s Impacts of California Wildfires on Climate and Forests: A Study of Seven Years of Wildfires (2001-2007), FCEM Report No. 3. The Executive Summary and link to the full text are now posted at the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: Forest and Fire Sciences [here]. The Forest Carbon And Emissions Model Reports No. 1 and 2 are [here].

For Immediate Release:

To Offset Greenhouse Gas Damage Caused From California Wildfires During 2001-2007, State’s 14 Million Cars Would Need To Be Locked In Garages For 3 1/2 Years, Study Finds

A raging wildfire can burn out of control for a long period of time, but eventually it will be extinguished.  However, the effects of that wildfire can linger for years and be a prime contributor to global warming.

A study by Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Professor Emeritus of Forest Science at Texas A&M University, released today found that California’s increasing wildfire crisis is causing more destruction and undoing much of the progress California is making to fight global warming.

Dr. Bonnicksen, who holds a Ph.D. in forestry from the University of California, Berkeley, and has studied California forests for more than 30 years, is author of America’s Ancient Forests: from the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery (John Wiley, 2000).

This report, entitled “Impacts of California Wildfires on Climate and Forests,” chronicles how the wildfires that scorched California from 2001 to 2007 seriously degraded the forests in the state and contributed to global warming.  The report notes that political and economic obstacles to managing and restoring forests contribute to causing the wildfire crisis.

Emissions from the last seven years of wildfires documented in this study are equivalent to adding an estimated 50 million more cars onto California’s highways for one year, each spewing tons of greenhouse gases.  To offset this damage, all 14 million cars in California would have to be locked in garages for 3 1/2 years to make up for the global warming impact of these wildfires.

From 2001 to 2007, fires burned more than 4 million California acres and released an estimated 277 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, resulting from combustion and the post-fire decay of dead trees.  That is an average of 68 tons per acre.

This study and previous studies use a new computer model, the Forest Carbon and Emissions Model (FCEM), to estimate greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires and insect infestations, and opportunities to recover these emissions and prevent future losses.

“Our most important question is: Can we recover from our mistake of letting forests become unnaturally overcrowded with trees and vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires?” said Dr. Bonnicksen, “the answer is yes, if we care about restoring our forests and fighting global warming.”

There are many other harmful effects of these wildfires as well, including killing wildlife, polluting the air and water, and stripping soil from hillsides.  Ironically, the greenhouse gases they emit are wiping out much of what is being achieved to reduce emissions from fossil fuels to battle global warming.

“While California’s actions to reduce global warming are significant, reducing the number and severity of wildfires may be the single most important action we can take in the short-term to lower greenhouse gas emissions and really fight global warming,” Bonnicksen said.

Some public forests in California have more than 1,000 trees per acre when 40 to 60 trees per acre would be natural.  These dense forests contain small trees that can carry fire into the canopy, and heavy concentrations of woody debris lying on the ground intensify the flames, which helps increase the size and severity of forest fires.  Reducing the number of all sizes of trees per acre by thinning is effective in helping prevent crown fires in forests.

Yet that is only part of the wildfire tragedy.

During the seven years covered by this study, California wildfires deforested about 882,759 acres of public and private land.  Only an estimated 120,755 acres were replanted.  That means about 762,004 acres of forest was converted permanently to brush because no live trees remain standing to provide seed for a new forest.  That is an average loss of 109,000 acres of forests each year, or the equivalent of nearly four times the area of San Francisco.

California’s forests are dwindling due to permanent deforestation from wildfire.  In addition, the estimated 134 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) released by fires and the decay of dead trees from forests that were permanently converted to brush from 2001 to 2007 will continue to worsen global warming.

Harvesting dead trees to prevent them from releasing CO2 from decay, storing the carbon they contain in long-lasting wood products, and using the money from the sale of the wood to replant a young forest that absorbs CO2 through photosynthesis, is the only way to restore deforested areas and recover this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, Dr. Bonnicksen said.  He added that this is done routinely on private industrial forestland but rarely on public forestland.  Therefore, he said, it is critical to expedite and increase the harvesting of fire-killed trees and replanting of young trees on public forests destroyed by wildfire.

The immensity of greenhouse gas emissions from California’s wildfires and the permanent loss of huge areas of forest are a warning.

The report emphasizes that every effort must be made to reduce the amount of fuel in public and private forests to prevent catastrophic wildfires.  That means managing forests to make them healthy, productive, and resistant to crown fires.

Major constraints to managing and thinning private forests are government regulations and the high cost of Timber Harvest Plans (THPs).  Solving this problem by streamlining regulations and reducing THP costs on private forests, and expediting environmental reviews for thinning and timber harvesting on public forests, could dramatically reduce wildfires and greenhouse gas emissions.

Data used in this report come from a variety of government and other sources.  They include the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region Ecosystem Planning Staff, U.S. Forest Service Region 5 Silviculturalist, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

For a copy of the full report please visit the Western Institute for Study of the Environment at https://www.westinstenv.org/ffsci


Rod Mendes: Does anyone care about our air?

By Rod Mendes, Redding Record Searchlight, August 24, 2023 [here]

For nearly four months last summer, thousands of Northern Californians sat shrouded in thick, brown smoke. Lots of people got sick. Many still have trouble breathing.

Smoke from wildfires that burned more than 200,000 acres blanketed Trinity and Humboldt counties and smothered roughly 4,000 people who live on and around the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation.

No tribal lands burned, but lightning strikes ignited fires all over the national forests that surround Hoopa land. Those forests were dangerously overgrown, overstocked and choked with dead and dying trees. There was little effort made to extinguish the fires despite the public health threat. Instead, fires were encouraged to burn toward and into designated wilderness areas.

The smoke observed no such boundaries. It settled everywhere.

Vulnerable residents were evacuated, high-efficiency air filters distributed and two public clean-air facilities established. The tribe provided emergency medical treatment for tribal members, non-tribal members, firefighters and residents from nearby communities. Eventually Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and even President George W. Bush declared a state of emergency, clearing the way for the tribe to recover some of the costs incurred trying to protect its people.

While fire is part of the rural-California experience, long-term exposure to bad air need not be.

The Hoopa Tribe manages its forestland to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. It does so sustainably, relying on timber revenues to fund tribal government, support the tribal economy, and provide for its people. Watersheds and wildlife habitat are conserved, invested in and nurtured. Families work in and with the forest.

The forest management directed by the tribal commitment to sustain culture and environment together produces beautiful, healthy, resilient forests.

But the lightning storm proved it’s not enough to take care of your own lands. When tens of thousands of your neighbor’s acres are overgrown, susceptible to insect infestation and catastrophic wildfire, you stand to face long-lasting health consequences regardless of how well you’ve prepared your own forests.

Government agency resources may be strained, but policymakers must be held accountable for land management and firefighting policies that harm the public health. Wildfire smoke causes asthma and exacerbates existing heart and lung issues. Tiny particulates in the smoke can lodge deep in human lungs. For weeks on end, Hoopa residents drove with their lights on during the day because the sun never penetrated the smoke.

We knew exactly what we were breathing, we just couldn’t escape it.

The best way to lower the public health threat is to reduce the fuel loads that drive catastrophic fire and smoke events. An ounce of prevention would go a long way - not just in terms of saving dollars and forests, but in terms of avoiding human suffering.

Forests need to be thinned, and harvested trees and vegetation put to good use. Doing so can enhance biodiversity, protect soils and watersheds, improve public safety and help clear the air. Too often forest management is blocked by administrative appeals when there is overwhelming evidence of an immediate threat to people and communities.

Land-management policies on public lands, including wilderness areas, must be changed to address accumulated fuels before wildfires start, and firefighting policies must change to put greater emphasis on the public’s best interests when they inevitably do. Currently, smoke-related public-health risks are given very low priority in firefighting policies. Firefighter safety is paramount, but when fires can be fought to reduce the smoke impacts on communities, they should be.

There have been encouraging signs recently. Incident commanders in the June 2009 Backbone Fire opened new lines of communication with the community and took steps to address the concerns that were raised. Tribal air quality data was considered by the command team and the initial attack on the fire was more aggressive than originally suggested. Rather than deal with more long-term smoke exposure, our air cleared relatively quickly.

The aggressive suppression tactics used in fighting the Backbone Fire spared a community that has endured more than its share of bad air. But we witnessed the exception rather than the rule. The long- and short-term public-health impacts of smoke have to figure higher in firefighting policy so they consistently receive greater priority in firefighting practice.

Still, the focus should be on prevention and sustainability. Forestry that conserves forest resources protects forests against catastrophic wildfire and people living in those forests from excessive smoke.

Yet while many of California’s public forestlands succumb to unprecedented tree mortality and stand dangerously overcrowded, most fuel-reduction projects planned by the Forest Service are blocked by procedural delays. While ideologies are debated and courts scrutinize paperwork details, real people are breathing real bad air and millions of acres are primed to burn.

When wildfire smoke causes widespread health problems we have a responsibility to consider alternatives to letting unmanaged forests burn. It’s time to clean up our forests and clear the air.

Rod Mendes is the director of the Office of Emergency Services for the Hoopa Valley Tribe in Humboldt County. Courtesy of California Forests magazine.

24 Aug 2009, 9:05am
Forestry education
by admin
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Forest fire cost report solidly based in science, accounting

By Mike Dubrasich, Guest Viewpoint, Eugene Register Guard, Aug 24, 2023 [here]

In an Aug. 17 Register-Guard guest viewpoint, “Report on ‘true cost’ of megafires not all it appears to be,” Jim Wells decries “shrill character assassinations with unsupported assertions.” Then he launches into one attacking me.

In his rush to cast flowery and unfounded aspersions, Wells failed to understand the substance and significance of the forest fire economics paper I co-authored.

The paper is U.S. Wildfire Cost-Plus-Loss Economics Project: The ‘One-Pager’ Checklist by Bob Zybach, Gregory Brenner, John Marker and myself, from Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, Advances in Fire Practices, Fall 2009. The paper reviews cost-plus-loss fire damage appraisal methods and philosophies.

Note: the paper is [here]. The U.S. Wildfire Cost-Plus-Loss Economics Project cooperators have set up a website [here] where reference material is posted.

We (the four authors) cite fire econometric studies from 1925 to 2009. All my fellow authors are recognized environmental experts with extensive schooling, experience and substantial prior achievements in forest and fire-related disciplines.

Wildfires, contrary to popular mythology, cause more harm than good, harming both natural and human environments. Damages (losses) from wildfires include watershed impacts (such as flooding, erosion and degradation of water quality); air quality degradation (smoke, carbon emissions); wildlife habitat destruction and pollution; ecosystem devastation and conversion; compromised public health and safety (health care costs, injuries and fatalities); recreation shutdowns; property losses (homes, businesses and crops); income loss to residents and businesses; and infrastructure destruction and shutdowns (power lines, highways and railroads), in addition to suppression expenses. The damages (cost-plus-loss) from wildfires are immediate and often extend into the distant future as well.

Dollars are standard units of measurement for values. Appraisal of some commodities damaged by wildfire — such as homes, timber and crops — is straightforward. Appraisal of non-commodities, such as endangered species habitat loss and scenery degradation, is more problematic.

But econometric methods (some simple, some complex) have been developed for appraisal of all natural and human resources. Those methods account for and appraise direct, indirect, short-term and long-term impacts.

The Wildfire Economics One Page Checklist presents a simplified accounting ledger (we developed a more detailed fire economics ledger, from which the one-pager was created). It is a tool to be used by fire managers, citizens, analysts, the media and various levels of government officials to quantify the economic damages of wildfires.

Accounting for all the damages that wildfires inflict will help fire suppression planning and fire management. The economic utility of fire suppression is to minimize cost-plus-loss from fires. That is why we invest in fire departments.

Accounting for all the impacts will help emergency service agencies, public health organizations, forest managers, rural and urban residents, small and large businesses, insurance companies, utility companies and local, state and federal governments understand the full scope of fire disasters through the use of reliable economic data, not subjective guesses — or worse, information vacuums.

Accounting for economic impacts informs post-fire reporting, recovery planning and future fire prevention, as well as preparation for individuals, families, communities and agencies.

If Wells, or anyone else, has (friendly) criticisms or questions about the paper, I am happy to post and discuss those at the Western Institute for Study of the Environment Web sites. The paper has been posted there for all to read and study, for free.

The Western Institute for Study of the Environment is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and a collaboration of environmental scientists, resource professionals, practitioners and the interested public. We are based in Lebanon. Our home page is westinstenv.org.

Our mission is to further advancements in knowledge and environmental stewardship across a spectrum of related environmental disciplines and professions.

We provide a free, online set of postgraduate courses in environmental studies, currently 50 topics in eight colloquia, each containing book and article reviews, original papers and essays.

In addition, we present three commentary sub-sites, a news clipping sub-site and a fire tracking sub-site. Hundreds of reviews, reprints and original articles from cutting-edge environmental science research (including forest, fire, and wildlife sciences) are archived in our library.

We strive to educate. That is our mission. Because we are Web-based, we can go into much greater detail on selected scientific issues than can a newspaper (no offense, that’s just how it is in our new digital age).

We specialize in environmental science reporting and analysis and provide interactive learning experiences for our visitors, the interested public, layman and expert alike. We hope those interactions will be informative, educational and enjoyable to all participants.

Wildfire economics is just one of dozens of environmental science investigations we sponsor and report upon. The public is cordially invited to join in, study, learn and teach at our Web sites.

Mike Dubrasich, executive director of the Western Institute for Study of the Environment, is the author of “A Guide to Innovative Tree Farming in the Pacific Northwest” and numerous scientific papers and reports.

Without Preliminary Thinning, Fires Are Deadly to Old-Growth

The following article appeared last week in the Payson Roundup. [Note: Payson is located approximately ninety minutes North of Phoenix, AZ in the heart of Arizona's Rim Country. Ninety-seven percent of the land around Payson is under the jurisdiction of the United States Forest Service (Payson is surrounded by the Tonto National Forest) or by tribal governments.]

The article was written by Pete Aleshire, Southwestern journalist, editor, and author. [Note: As a senior lecturer at Arizona State University's West Campus since 1992, Mr. Aleshire has taught journalism, magazine writing, creative nonfiction and other courses. He has published four history books about Arizona's Apache Wars -- "Reaping the Whirlwind," "Cochise," "Warrior Woman" and "The Fox and the Whirlwind." His articles have been published in Phoenix Magazine, Geo, Reader's Digest, Cerca, Arizona Highways, and other magazines.]

The article is about the work of Dr. W. Wallace Covington, Regents’ Professor of Forest Ecology at Northern Arizona University and Director of the Ecological Restoration Institute [here]. Dr. Covington been a professor teaching and researching fire ecology and restoration management at NAU since 1975 and is widely recognized as a founder and world-class expert in forest restoration.

An earlier essay about Dr. Covington, Friendly Fire by Stephen J. Pyne, may be found in the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: Restoration Forestry [here].  Dr. Covington’s 2002 testimony to Congress regarding the Wildland Firefighting and National Fire Plan is also posted in that Colloquium [here].

Mr. Aleshire’s article (emphases in bold by SOSF):


Saving the Pine Forest

Wally Covington has shaped the debate and befuddled critics with woodsy charm and the tenacity of a badger

By Pete Aleshire, The Payson Roundup, August 7, 2023 [here]

Wally Covington, who has spent a quarter century reshaping the debate about forest management, leaned forward excitedly across the boundary between his biggest disappointment and his dearest hope.

On one hand, lush grass and scattered flowers swayed in the dappled sunlight in an open forest dominated by widely spaced, ponderosa pines.

On the other side of a wire fence huddled a dark, thick forest, with the smattering of grand old trees besieged by tangles of spindly saplings — the ground covered by pine needles rather than grass.

The contrast between those two patches of forest underlies his unsettling conclusion that the forests of the Southwest sway at the edge of ecological disaster, which can only be averted by a politically unlikely reinvention of the timber industry to thin millions of acres as a prelude to restoring fire to its rightful role.

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4 Aug 2009, 1:27pm
Forestry education Saving Forests
by admin

Wildfire Cost-Plus-Loss

What are the actual costs of a wildfire?

A new research paper posted at the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: Forest and Fire Sciences [here] addresses that question. The title is U.S. Wildfire Cost-Plus-Loss Economics Project: The “One-Pager” Checklist, and the authors are Bob Zybach, Michael Dubrasich, Gregory Brenner, and John Marker.

Official Forest Service tallies usually include suppression expenses only.  Media reports sometimes include estimates of damage to homes and infrastructure.  But the economic impacts of wildfires are far-reaching and new (and old) research shows the need for improved cost estimates of wildfire.

Large wildfires consume more than just suppression expenses (costs) –- they also do measurable short- and long-term damages (loss) to public and private equity and resources.  Traditional fire appraisal uses the term cost-plus-loss to account for all the economic impacts of wildfire.  This econometric analysis method is sometimes expressed as C+NVC (costs plus net value change).  The goal (economic utility) of fire suppression is to minimize cost-plus-loss, sometimes expressed as LCD (least cost plus damage).

The paper describes a method for accounting for all the costs and losses associated with wildfires. A one page checklist is appended that serves as a mini-ledger for performing that accounting.

We have discussed the cost-plus loss issue many times at SOS Forests [here, here, and here, for instance]. One post worth highlighting:

* The Western Forestry Leadership Coalition recently released a report [here] entitled “The True Cost of Wildfire in the Western U.S.” (Dale et al 2009).  The authors examined six major US wildfires, and compared suppression costs and tactics with “total costs.”

A full accounting considers long-term and complex costs, including impacts to watersheds, ecosystems, infrastructure, businesses, individuals, and the local and national economy. Specifically, these costs include property losses (insured and uninsured), post-fire impacts (such as flooding, erosion, and water quality), air quality damages, healthcare costs, injuries and fatalities, lost revenues (to residents evacuated by the fire, and to local businesses), infrastructure shutdowns (such as highways, airports, railroads), and a host of ecosystem service costs that may extend into the distant future.

Day-lighting the true costs of fire highlights opportunities to use active management to curb escalating costs. Unhealthy forests can increase the risk of fire. Investing in active forest management is therefore valuable in the same way as investing in one’s own preventative health care. Upfront costs can be imposing, and while the benefits may seem uncertain, good health results in cost savings that benefit the individual, family, and society. This analogy helps to highlight the importance of fostering resilient ecosystems before fires occur, as a tool for reducing the costs associated with suppression and recovery as well as extending benefits to a far wider circle of individuals than might be initially expected.

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31 Jul 2009, 11:04pm
Forestry education
by admin
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Historic Ranger Station Dedicated at High Desert Museum

by John F. Marker, USFS (ret.)

BEND - July 31, 2009. The old one room ranger station officially began its tour of duty today in its third Forest Service Region since it was built in the 1930s. The station was dedicated at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon today in a brief ceremony launching its use as a national forest learning center at the museum.

The ranger station was born in the Bridgeport, California, area in about 1933, as a CCC project to build facilities for the local ranger district of the U.S. Forest Service in Region 5. Later in its life it was moved to central Nevada to serve as a station for the USFS near Austin, Nevada, in the Forest Service Region 4.

Budget cuts and shifting workloads eventually forced the abandonment of the ranger station. The Forest Service did their best to secure the building from vandalism and the weather elements, and were reasonably successful. However, time always takes its toll. Discussions about the one room “shack” began.

Long story short: Les Joslin,who had worked out of this old Ranger Station in the early 1960’s, remembered fondly his days working in the building as a part time clerk (he could type) and member of the fire crew. Now a FS retiree as well as a Navy retiree (USNR Commander) the fond memories stirred him to convince Bob Boyd, Western History Curator for High Desert Museum, that the abandoned ranger station belonged at the museum to help tell the story of national forests in the High Desert and the people who cared for them.

After much creativity and much fund raising, the old ranger station found a new home at the museum, 550 miles from Austin in its third Forest Service Region, Region 6. It will be the focal point for educating Museum visitors about how important the forests are to their day to day lives.

Left is Les Joslin, right is Bob Boyd. Photo by John F. Marker (click for larger image).

The one room ranger station. Photo by John F. Marker (click for larger image).

View of attendees (60 plus or minus). Photo by John F. Marker (click for larger image).

26 Jul 2009, 11:27pm
Forestry education Politics and politicians
by admin
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A Proposal For A New Institute of Venture Science

Proposed: a new institute that will invest deeply in science with breakthrough potential. The proposed institute would focus on high-risk, high-return research only, identifying and funding promising status-quo-challenging ideas in all areas of science.

The idea is to create an institute that supports scientific research which challenges existing paradigms and thereby produces breakthroughs in medicine, ecology, climatology, and many other scientific disciplines — revolutionary science, such as the kind that led to the laser, the transistor, the polio vaccine, the Internet, and indeed most of the truly innovative advancements in science and technology that we know of today.

Currently, status-quo science commands all the funding. Those who challenge paradigms are excluded from mainstream grants for many reasons: principally (perhaps) a timidity born of institutional risk-aversion together with old-fashioned intellectual stultification.

Could a bold, new Institute of Venture Science become a reality? Such is the goal of a group of leaders in science who have sent a letter [here] to President Obama, to his science advisor, John Holdren, and to Congress. Drafted by Gerald H. Pollack, Ph.D., Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington, the letter is endorsed by more than 60 leading American scientists in the fields of medicine, biophysics, forest science, anthropology, engineering, geography, astronomy, nanotechnology, and numerous other fields.

The letter requests that an Institute of Venture Science be funded:

… with a budget of about ten percent of the combined NSF and NIH budgets, or about $4 billion per year. The IVS would be set up for a test period of ten years. If it fails to produce scientific revolutions during that period, it could be dismantled — the investment having been modest relative to current scientific investments, which have produced few revolutions. If it succeeds, as some of us think inevitable, then it will have restored science to the richly bountiful enterprise it was before the funding agencies began imposing top-down management and inviting mainstream scientists to judge their challengers. With proper investment (in part perhaps from private sources) in the most promising and farreaching breakthrough ideas, science should once again revolutionize human existence.

Appended to the letter is a Proposal for Implementation [here] that describes how such an Institute would operate.

Current agencies… are not set up to deal with the most critical obstacle to realization: the reluctance of a conservative scientific community to entertain ideas that challenge their long-held views. Challenges are perceived as antithetical to their best interests, and hence, few transformative ideas ever ascend to realization in reasonable time frame no matter how compelling may be the case.

The IVS is designed to overcome this obstacle. It does so by investing in groups of scientists who pursue the same unconventional approach to an intractable problem or an entrenched way of thinking. Grants are awarded following rigorous review. Challenger and orthodoxy present their arguments to a panel of disinterested scientific observers, who decide whether the challenge is meritorious. The most highly ranked proposals are funded liberally, allowing multiple laboratories to pursue the same challenge theme. This multiplicity of efforts creates a critical mass that cannot be ignored; challenge and orthodoxy compete on equal footing and if the challenge prevails, then the result is a realized paradigm shift or even a revolution in scientific thinking.

The need for funding science that researches “outside the box” is becoming more and more obvious even to lay persons. Last June the NY Times published:

Grant System Leads Cancer Researchers to Play It Safe

by Gina Kolata, NY Times, June 27, 2023 [here]

Among the recent research grants awarded by the National Cancer Institute is one for a study asking whether people who are especially responsive to good-tasting food have the most difficulty staying on a diet. Another study will assess a Web-based program that encourages families to choose more healthful foods. …

The cancer institute has spent $105 billion since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on the disease in 1971. The American Cancer Society, the largest private financer of cancer research, has spent about $3.4 billion on research grants since 1946.

Yet the fight against cancer is going slower than most had hoped, with only small changes in the death rate in the almost 40 years since it began.

One major impediment, scientists agree, is the grant system itself. It has become a sort of jobs program, a way to keep research laboratories going year after year with the understanding that the focus will be on small projects unlikely to take significant steps toward curing cancer. …

Last week the Science and Public Policy presented a study [here] that found:

The US government has spent over $79 billion since 1989 on policies related to climate change, including science and technology research, administration, education campaigns, foreign aid, and tax breaks.

Yet, those who challenge the prevailing theories have not only not been funded, in many cases they have been fired. Gaping holes in Greenhouse Gas and Global Warming models have been exposed by grassroots scientists outside the funded agencies because within them orthodoxy has grown oppressive. “The debate is over — there is a consensus,” is the political cry, but true science does not work by consensus; science functions by challenging hypotheses with experiments and the collection of empirical data — by putting orthodoxy to the test.

Despite the incredibly one-sided research funding and political sermonizing, less than half of U.S. voters believe global warming is caused by human activities [here]. And if lay people are skeptical, then scientists should be even more so — the scientific method is based on skepticism.

But the funding is closed off to those who challenge global warming orthodoxy, and that is true in forest science as well. Clementsian theories of “natural balance,” “natural fire regimes,” and “natural succession” still hold sway despite over 80 years of research that has amassed strong, empirical, counter-evidence. Those who espouse new thinking have been ostracized by the Establishment, and one result has been a crisis of megafires that are destroying our heritage forests.

Bob Tom, Tribal elder of the Siletz and Grand Ronde Tribes, described the growing Cultural Renaissance taking place in the Native American community [here]. We need a Science Renaissance as well, around the world within the entire human community.

Science unchained can provide us so much: cures for deadly diseases, rediscovery of lost civilizations, the shattering of hoary paradigms, a vastly improved understanding of the universe and our role in it. The old walls should imprison us no longer. Open the doors and windows. Unbind the Prometheus of rational inquiry. Shine the bright searchlight once again.

We have allowed ourselves to become fettered by antiquated myths. It is so boring, so debilitating, so Medieval. Let us instead cast off into the unknown and seek new shores.

It is not my habit to request assistance. I never ask you, dear readers, to “write your congressperson.” I am reticent to promote contributions to W.I.S.E.’s empty coffers by begging for donations, something I am supposed to do in my capacity as Executive Director. It is uncomfortably gauche to implore your generosity, (although your occasional generosity is deeply appreciated).

In this instance, however, I am asking you, please, to write your elected representatives, to add your voice to those who are calling for a new Institute of Venture Science. Download the letter [here] and add your name to the list. Send it to your congressperson together with a note in your own words. It is truly in your best interest to do so, and in the interest of all humanity, to free the sciences from the present dismal swamp of calcified thinking.

Thank you. On behalf of all of us.

19 Jul 2009, 6:36pm
Forestry education The 2009 Fire Season
by admin

Dangerous Ecobabble — A Case In Point

No sooner did we post about ecobabble from the fire community [here] than heads-up readers sent us a clipping from the Redding Record Searchlight in which “fire ecologists” make some unsubstantiated and erroneous ecobabble claims:

Ecologists decry efforts to douse fire

By Ryan Sabalow , Redding Record Searchlight, July 19, 2023 [here]

Two environmentalists who study fire ecology say community leaders shouldn’t be applauding U.S. Forest Service firefighters’ quick work to contain the isolated Backbone Fire, no matter how much smoke was kept out of the air.

“Smoke is an unpleasant, but unavoidable, fact of natural life,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, the executive director of the Eugene, Ore.-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. “There’s no smokeless fire. This is California fire country. There’s no way around it.”

Chad Hanson, director of the Cedar Ridge-based John Muir Project, agreed, saying that there’s no scientific evidence showing wildfire smoke causes long-term damage to residents’ respiratory systems.

But there is universal agreement among ecologists that wildfires — even the most high-intensity blazes — are good for a forest, he said. …

Universal agreement? That’s something even grander than a consensus. But is it true? Of course not, not even close.

High intensity fires kill all the trees and convert forests to brush. That’s not “good” for forests. Count me as outside the “universal agreement” (which doesn’t exist in the real world).

The statement is bogus on it’s face, just like the statement that “there’s no scientific evidence showing wildfire smoke causes long-term damage to residents’ respiratory systems.”

more »

19 Jul 2009, 10:58am
Federal forest policy Forestry education
by admin

Ecobabble from the Fire Community

As we have pointed out repeatedly [here and here, for instance], the fire community is largely ignorant of forest science. They see wildfire as a glorious panacea for whatever ails forests, and they stoop to new levels of ecobabble to justify their prejudices.

Ecobabble is the misuse and abuse of terminology from the ecological sciences to paint a false picture and to imply that the user knows something that they manifestly do not. I didn’t invent the term; see some Web definitions [here].

When the fire community uses ecobabble, it is particularly offensive because they abuse the terminology to cover up their abuse of the environment. Some examples and explanatory comments follow. I have not cited the actual ecobabblers, although I could do so, out of compassion for the low-level functionaries who spew propaganda as ordered by higher ups.

Fires recycle the forest — Forests are not garbage; they do not require “recycling.” This ecobabble canard is an outgrowth of the “decadent forest” agitprop that was used to justify old-growth logging. The logging of old-growth was halted 20 years ago (or more) but ironically the protesters of by-gone eras now use their adversaries’ ecobabble to justify incinerating old-growth forests today. Forests develop and change over time. They are aggregations of organisms in various conditions. Forests are not single organisms that get old and must be killed dead so new forests can grow there. That sort of thinking is a-scientific.

Fires rejuvenate the forest — This is the same type of ecobabble as above. “Rejuvenate” means to make young again. There is no ecological reason to kill old-growth forests and replace them with baby forests. Indeed, there is ample reason to protect, maintain, and perpetuate old-growth forests.

The “rejuvenation” ecobabble has been applied (by the fire community) to return fires. Return fires are reburns of older burns, often within 15 years or less. The first fire killed all the old-growth and left a sea of snags and brush. The second fire is supposed to “rejuvenate” the burn. But if wildfire was so rejuvenational, why didn’t the first fire accomplish the feat? And how will the second fire do what the first did not? In fact, return fires often cement the conversion of forests to fire-type brush.

Ensuring that fire plays its natural ecological role in fire-adapted forests — This is double ecobabble. First, most Western Hemisphere forests have been subject to human-set (anthropogenic) fires for millennia. Human tending through anthropogenic fire gave rise to open, park-like forests and induced the forest development pathways that led to old-growth trees. The “natural ecological role” of fire in our forests is to convert them to tick brush, the historical human role has been to manage fire regimes to tend forests.

The fire community is sadly ignorant of actual, historical forest development pathways. It could be said that much of the forest science community is equally sad and ignorant of the ecological processes that have nurtured our forests for thousands of years. The denial of historical human influences is a-scientific, a-historical, and seen by many as racist. Denying the presence and actions of millions of human residents over millennia is a pernicious myth rooted in extreme cultural prejudice.

All forests are “adapted” to fire, but not all fires are alike. The frequent, seasonal, human-set and tended fires that guided forest development during the entire Holocene were materially different from the catastrophic holocausts perpetrated by the Federal Government today. The severe burns that denude whole landscapes and convert them from forest to brush fields are not “ecological” or desirable in terms of forest maintenance or resource protection.

Fires like this do not “rejuvenate,” “play a natural ecological role,” or “benefit resources.”

Fires reduce fuel loadings — That frequent claim is not ecobabble per se, because it is closer to fire engineering than ecological terminology. The statement is counter-factual nonetheless, as can be seen in the photo above. The severe fires that the Federal fire bosses are so fond of kill green trees and leave more dead and dry fuel than was present before the fire. The fire hazard is increased, not mitigated, by catastrophic fire.

Fire suppression in the past is responsible for fires today — Another ecobabble statement with no basis in fact. Catastrophic fires are nothing new. The First Residents experienced landscape-scale severe fires that destroyed whole regions and left the people starving. They soon learned, from painful experience, that human beings could reduce the holocausts that challenged survival itself by setting frequent, seasonal, light burning fires.

It was the elimination of stewardship and anthropogenic fire, steeped in millennia of traditional ecological knowledge, that led to modern fuel build-ups and the catastrophic megafires of today.

Had the government NOT attempted to suppress fires over the last 100 years or so, those fires would have been megafire holocausts (such as the Idaho fires of 1910). Backing off and letting fires burn does not reduce the fire hazard; it actualizes it.


Ecobabble is nothing new; some might contend that most of ecological science is babble. But the egregious use of ecobabble to justify catastrophic forest fires is a modern invention, recent propaganda designed to excuse horrifically bad forest management.

Based on a-historical myths and lies, modern ecobabble promulgated by the fire community is harmful and destructive. It does not justify — it exacerbates the harm done by adding insult to injury.

We have barely scratched the surface in this post. Send us your own favorite ecobabble phrases. We will disabuse the abusers of the terminology and set the record straight here.

14 Jul 2009, 2:02pm
Forestry education
by admin
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Cost-Plus-Loss Is the Correct Way to Evaluate the Economics of Fire

The standard way the government accounts for fire costs is to look at direct suppression costs only. That is overly simplistic to the point of fiduciary incompetence.

Fires cause lasting damages to a variety of natural and human-built resources. Those damages, also called losses, are vital elements that must be considered when accounting for the total costs of fire. The econometric term is cost-plus-loss, and we have discussed the concept many times before [here, here, here, here, here, for a small sampling].

We have estimated that cost-plus-loss can range from 10 to 40 times the suppression expenses. Now a study from San Diego State University of the Cedar Complex Fires of 2003 finds the cost-plus-loss of those fires to be 50 times suppression expenses, at least. From the LaLa Times:

San Diego County’s 2003 wildfire losses top $2 billion

by Bettina Boxall, LA Times, July 13, 2023 [here]

How much did the Southern California fire storms of 2003 really cost?

Matt Rahn, a research director at San Diego State University, delved into the losses and concluded that the final bill in San Diego County alone was $2.4 billion.

“What astounded us most was the total economic loss,” Rahn said.

The expense of fighting the wildfires turned out to be less than 2% of the total. Restoring burned watersheds cost more than the firefight, according to Rahn’s tally.

San Diego Gas and Electric spent $71 million replacing thousands of charred power poles, transformers and hundreds of miles of wire. The state reimbursed the utility for more than half that.

Businesses shut down for days during the fire siege.

The fire blackened 375,917 acres, destroyed 3,241 homes and killed 16 people in the county. (All told, the 14 wildfires that raged across Southern California in late October charred 750,000 acres, burned down 3,710 homes and killed 24 people.)

Airline flights were canceled because the skies were thick with smoke. A high-tech manufacturer had to replace all the air filters in its plant. The insurance industry paid an estimated $1.1 billion in property claims.

It cost Caltrans $15 million to fix fire-damaged highways in the county.

Rahn said the figures underscore the importance of maintaining firefighting forces to control blazes in their early stages, before they become an unstoppable force of nature.

“Pay now or pay a whole lot later,” he said. “We’re in an economic crisis in California, and we’re talking about reducing firefighting levels. Cutting them in the short term may actually wind up with a longer-term impact.” …

Dr. Rahn’s findings reinforce earlier findings (see the links above). The subject is not particularly new to forestry — cost-plus-loss studies have been undertaken since the 1920’s — but the findings of the last 90 years or so have not been well-understood by the public at large.

Cost-plus-loss is the logical way to account for fire costs and to evaluate the economic utility of fire suppression. We invest in fire suppression to prevent losses and damages. That is, the “utility” of firefighting is a function of the losses prevented.

A new and comprehensive study of cost-plus-loss accounting methodology is due to be published soon. Modesty and propriety prevent me from discussing the particulars now, but very soon we will be allowed to trumpet those findings here at SOS Forests.

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