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Earth Dr Reese Halter's Blog


Story originally ran August 2008 — Gannett — Desert Sun — Palm Springs, California


Last year (2008) California smashed two frightening records: The driest year so far recorded, and the worst fire season to scorch parched forests since the inception of continuous records in 1871.

From January to July 1, 2008 the state has spent over $295 million fighting fires. That figure does not include millions of dollars spent battling more than 1,000 fires ignited from over 5,000 dry-lightning strikes on June 21 and 22. Moreover, our tinder dry state has yet to experience the predictable and ferocious Santa Ana winds of September and October.

Already this year (2008) 306 homes were incinerated and over 1.4 million acres are charred, eclipsing the 1936 record of 756,696 acres burned in a year.

There are at least three factors that have collided to create conditions for the perfect firestorms.

As climate change deepens, prolonged periods of droughts are occurring. For California specifically, the onset of the La Nina or the cooling of the eastern Pacific Ocean has caused the jet stream to migrate northward, preventing snow from falling on the Sierra Nevada’s particularly in mid February and March. In turn, warmer than average springtime air temperatures evaporated at least 30% of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which accounts for the bulk of California’s annual water supply.

The snowpack is also important because it acts like an enormous sponge – releasing water slowly into the soil, feeding state reservoirs and keeping forests from drying out and becoming powder kegs.

For the past 95 years or so across the West and including California has imposed a Smokey Bear fire policy, interrupting the natural fire cycle and deliberately preventing all wildfires. All forests in California and throughout our nation have evolved with fire; many tree species rely upon it for their survival.

Forest ecosystems, like humans, continuously undergo change. Fire is one of Nature’s agents of change. By purposely stopping fire from occurring, resource managers have altered the structure and composition of our forests.

In California, hundreds of millions of highly flammable incense cedars and white fir seedlings and saplings are now carpeting the forest floors. Lightning-induced fire every other decade or so would normally preclude dense overcrowding, but outdated management policies have clearly upset Nature’s balance.

In addition, droughts across the West and California have weakened a billion mature pine trees. Those pines that have not died from water starvation lack gooey pitch – their only defense mechanism against native bark beetles. The trees are sitting ducks and insatiable bark beetles sense this vulnerability.

Bark beetles are another of Nature’s agents of change; they are on a tear. Since fire has been suppressed from the landscape, and lethal frigid temperatures in November have not occurred for the last decade — billions of bark beetles are swarming in a feeding frenzy of biblical proportions.

Millions of dead standing pines in California are acting as kindling and fueling megafires like those of 2003, 2007 and 2008.

California’s burgeoning population has built at least 350,000 homes on the urban/wildland interface, and they remain at high risk to ever-increasing threats of wildfires.

Gov. Schwarzenegger is considering a new tax – $1 a month for every homeowner, but even this is unlikely to scratch the surface of escalating firefighting costs. Additionally, a much higher surcharge for the 350,000 homeowners most at risk from wildfires is also being proposed.

Unusual times call for unusual actions and Gov. Brown would be well advised to consider following a precedent that  former Gov. Richardson (NM) implemented successfully to remove millions of dead pinyon pines in New Mexico on both state and federal lands. Richardson mobilized prison inmates to clear the incendiary dead trees from forestlands.

The costs of having inmates assist in removal of dead trees as well as thinning-out over-crowded forests state-wide is a fraction of the cost of the other options, including raising new taxes and the labor cost for having foresters thin the forest, hundreds of millions of dollars spent fighting wildfires, or the cost of replacing homes destroyed by fires.

The choice for removing the explosive forest kindling is clear: would you rather your tax dollars be spent paying $1 per hour to inmates or $30 per hour to professional fallers?

Australia, Radio 1, National: Ockham’s Razor –

Save the Florida Coral

Earth Dr Reese Halter is an award-winning Science Communicator: Voice for Ecology,  conservation biologist at Cal Lu University and public speaker.  His latest book is entitled The Insatiable Bark Beetle Contact him through

Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2011. All rights reserved.


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