How Journalists Should Really Cover Wildfires

hayman another photo

Thanks to Char for sending this.. here’s an excerpt:

Not all fire’s consequences are as obviously beneficial, at least not for those of us dependent on mountainous watersheds to sustain our thirsty downstream communities. Yet it turns out that in this context too words, and the thoughts and actions they generate, matter.

Although some reports about the Rim fire have highlighted San Francisco’s complete reliance on the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, located within Yosemite National Park, they have been freighted with dire anticipation — will airborne ash clog up its century-old works, imperiling the City by the Bay’s supply of potable water and electricity?

The immediate answer is no, or at least not yet, leading the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to predict that due “to the rocky, granite terrain and limited brush along the perimeter of the reservoir, there is little risk for direct impacts on the reservoir.”

Whatever relief this response may bring to its anxious customers, it may only be temporary and is certainly partial. That’s because the real question, which compels us to think across a multi-year future, is what happens when rain falls and snow flies in the high-elevation watershed of the Tuolumne River that feeds the threatened reservoir?

This coming winter and spring, and in successive storm seasons, precipitation landing on the burned-over terrain may trigger debris flows that could compromise the water quality within and the functioning of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir as spigot and generator.

Denver had to confront a similar challenge in the wake of the massive Hayman fire of 2002. Then the largest and most intense blaze in Colorado history, it had a major impact on the Mile-High City’s water supply. Ever since, the American Planning Association reports, the tributaries of the Upper South Platte River have experienced an “increase in the number and severity of flooding events” which in turn has let loose “large amounts of sediment and debris threaten[ing] the vitality of watersheds and ecosystems.” These post-fire environmental consequences accelerated public and private collaborations to restore affected riparian ecosystems, an involved and expensive process that continues more than a decade later.

The 2009 Station fire likewise damaged key portions of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers’ watersheds, leading to initial interventions, with more projected, to regenerate forest cover, river flow, and water quality.

It’s unfortunate that San Francisco did not pick up on these broad hints and in advance work with local, state, and federal agencies to reduce the threat that a fire like the Rim could pose to its single-source water supply. But this would have required the city’s Public Utility Commission and Division of Public Works to think proactively, for journalists there and elsewhere to offer more historically informed stories contextualizing fires across time and space, and for us collectively to build a more forward-thinking culture determined to resolve problems before they blow up in our faces.

I did have a quibble with “Set aside the concept that fires inevitably, irreparably destroy forests and consider instead the idea that fire may have regenerative capacity.” I think there are “good” fires from that perspective and “bad” fires. Hayman (photo above) may have been a “bad” fire.

I know it’s not irreparable, but I think people can say they prefer living green forests to this (photo above); knowing it will come back in a couple hundred years provides little satisfaction, and people’s (and certain wildife, bugs, plants, etc.) preferences for living green trees are OK. Aren’t they?

4 Comments

  1. SHARON
    BELIEVE THAT THERE IS AN ANSWERED QUESTION ¿WHO HAS MORE OR LESS WILDFIRES THE STATE OWNED FORESTS OR THE PRIVATE EARNEAD FORESTS
    AND WHY IS THAT SO? REGARDING OLD GROWTH TREES AND THEIR MAINT I AM ALL FOR ITON THE B AS FORASIS THAT THE SAME CARE WILL BE TAKEN THE COMMERTIAL TREES (FIRES AND OTHER PESTS) THAT IT IS NOT NECESARY BECAUSE YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THAT THESE TREES AT SOME POINT BECOME OVERMATURE
    AND FOR THAT TIME ONWARDS THE TREE BEGINS TO LOSE MASS AND AT LAST WHEN THEY FALL WE HAVE LOST ALL THE VALUE.LET US IMAGINE THAT BOTH STATE OWNED AND PRIVALELY OWNED FORESTS RESERVE 1%OF THE TOTAL SURFACE
    THEY OWN ARE NOT LOGGED AND LEFT FOR THE PUBLIC TO ENJOY.
    The best example we have in ROTORUA,NEW ZEALAND WHERE THEY HAVE IN THE LAND BELONGING TO THE FOREST PRODUCT LAB IN AN EXTENTION OF 4 HECTARES
    HAVING 5 DOUGLAR FIRS PLANTED IN 1912 WHICH PROVES THAT THIS SPECIE GROWS
    FASTER AND BETTER IN NEW ZEALAND THAN AT THE PLACE OF ORIGIN PEOPLE GO THERE TO ENJOY THIS MAGNIFICENT PLACE THE PRICIPE IS THAT IT HAS TO BE ALWAYS A WIN-WIN SITUATION BOTH FOR THOSE WHO CUT THE TREES FOR LUMBER
    AS THOSE WHO WANT TO KEEP IT AS IT ORIGINALLY WAS A SITUATION COMPARABLE
    TO A LOSE-LOOSE SITUATIONAND WE WILL HAVE CLEAN DRINKABLE AND FISHABLE
    WATERS

  2. of course green woods are ok. But it depends on which bugs and birds you ask! Here is a nice short FS video on the black-backed woodpecker’s post-fire bliss: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1UnMDGqG_4&feature=youtu.be

    char miller, director w.m. keck professor of environmental analysis environmental analysis program pomona college 185 e. sixth street claremont ca 91711 909-607-8343 char.miller@pomona.edu ________________________________

  3. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, as I understand, requires hydro-power managers to address watershed protection during relicensing.

    Again, as I understand, protecting reservoirs from watershed damage is limited to a few hundred yards horizontally from the water line to possibly a few tens of feet above the water line for elevation.

    Please educate me on the FERC requirements for watershed protection.

    At issue is who pays for watershed protection. The people that benefit from the sale of water or electricity? The people who live in the watershed?

    California has a “Fire Tax” for residences in the State Responsibility area. There are eight functions of prevention funded by this “fee”. Should the people using the water and electricity also be required to put something in the collection plate?

    • Denver Water has a partnership program on watershed protection activities with the Forest Service, and I think Santa Fe does also. I think it’s a 50/50 match. Here’s the link to the Denver Water partnership.
      http://www.denverwater.org/supplyplanning/watersupply/partnershipUSFS/

      Here’s a link to an abstract of some of the research done on the Santa Fe watershed.
      http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/grassland-shrubland-desert/research/projects/santa-fe-river-reductions/ and an excerpt.

      Changes in the historic fire regime in addition to various land management practices have increased the likelihood of high severity crown fires in the Southwest.. During these types of fires, most trees are killed, and soils left bare and prone to erosion. Conditions that increase the risk of high severity fires exist in the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed, which contains two reservoirs that provide 40% of the drinking water for the city. To protect water quality, to preserve reservoir storage capacity, and to restore sustainable watershed conditions, the Santa Fe National Forest is implementing a fuel reduction program in the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed. Fuels reduction includes removing smaller trees leaving an average of 50 to 100 trees per acre (124 to 247 trees per hectare). Prescribed burning is being used in conjunction with mechanical treatments to remove material left from thinning and to reduce fuels in areas too steep to thin.

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