The immensely destructive Rim Fire threatened San Francisco's water and municipal power system, tore through important wildlife habitat and lapped at valued treasures in Yosemite National Park, including giant sequoias. The real calamity is that humans are likely to blame for the destruction. Steps should now be taken to create a plan to avoid the fire-management mistakes that helped bring about the raging inferno.
There will never be a way to completely eliminate forest fires. And they should not be completely eliminated, for they serve an important role in a forest ecosystem. In fact, in the past few decades, science has developed a more enlightened view of forest fires that trumps fears that the blazes kill off forests, creating wastelands for generations. Most people now understand that fires are needed in forest environments to create new growth, even though that means killing off some flora.
But the old way of preventing forest fires, and fighting those that spring up, still perseveres. And misguided management hindered by a lack of funds, combined with drought conditions in a tinderbox area of the Sierra Nevada, helped create the perfect conditions in which the Rim Fire rapidly spread.
The area where the fire started is a naturally dry area that receives less precipitation than areas just to its north. It also is an area that burned in 1987 during the Stanislaus Complex Fire. It was after that blaze that the U.S. Forest Service planted large swaths of pine groves at one time in an attempt to reforest the landscape.
A truly natural forest has a range of differently sized trees that sprouted and grew during different years. The unnatural forest created by the Forest Service was of a uniform size, and it was allowed to grow dense without thinning due to a lack of funds, a former Forest Service worker told The Los Angeles Times.
At the same time these new trees were growing atop the area's steep hillsides, the federal government was sticking with old fire-suppression guidelines that date back to World War II and had more to do with protecting trees for lumber than healthy forest management.
In some national parks, including Yellowstone and Yosemite, naturally occurring fires that didn't threaten structures or people were allowed to burn. And in other places, prescribed burns were used to mimic natural fires. But outside the national parks, putting out fires quickly was the norm and prescribed burns were rare. In places such as the area where the Rim Fire has spread, built-up undergrowth helps the blazes spread quicker and burn hotter, incinerating young-growth trees, such as all those planted pines.
Major catastrophe has been avoided in the Rim Fire, but there were losses, including Berkeley's historic Tuolumne Camp. The Hetch Hetchy watershed still faces uncertain challenges, especially if wet weather hits while the hills are still bare, potentially sending vast quantities of sediment into the reservoir. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission says it can filter the sediment, but the process for doing so for all of its water customers is still untested.
Now, with images of what San Francisco and the region have to lose from any future fire in the area fresh in the minds of policymakers, local and federal leaders need to lobby for changes in fire-management strategy and the money to carry it out.
The Rim Fire is teaching us a lesson that need not be repeated. Although there certainly will be calls to increase funding for firefighting, the real money should be directed toward management and planning — upfront costs that could pay dividends throughout the generations.