California’s Efforts on Dead Trees and Fuels

PGE in California has cleared 100K miles (!) of powerline.

To add to the fuel treatment debate mix.. What does the fuel issue look like in a D state when you take the FS out of the equation? (given that the reporter isn’t as cautious about his language about “to blame” for wildfires as readers of this blog would prefer). Here’s the link.

While human error continues to be the leading cause of wildfires, the number of dead trees and densely overgrown brush are responsible for some of the most damaging and difficult to control fires.

In October 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency declaration to address the number of dead and dying trees as a result of extended drought conditions. An estimated 102 million trees died between 2010 and 2016 during the Golden State’s devastating drought, with about 62 million perishing in 2016 alone.

These trees are frequently to blame for wildfires, including the 2015 Butte Fire that burned 70,000 acres and destroyed 900 structures after a dead pine tree fell on power lines.

Cal Fire has partnered with the California Conservation Corps to organize crews to clear dead trees and conduct controlled burns in densely forested areas.

Pimlott informed the subcommittee that in the time since the declaration, Pacific Gas & Electric has cleared trees and brush from 100,000 miles of power lines across the state. California has spent $418 million to remove dead and dying trees statewide, which has been instrumental to reducing the amount of property damage caused by fires.

“Collectively, we have removed over 800,000 trees since the declaration,” Pimlott said. “We have focused primarily on the property damage side of things.” He credits the ability of multiple agencies, including Cal Fire, Caltrans, PG&E and others who have worked together to reduce the risk of unintentional fires.

Pimlott said the state needs to commit more money to fire prevention and forest maintenance projects.

“Fifteen million dollars really isn’t enough to deal with our forest health challenges,” Pimlott said. “We really need to look at more significant investments.”

Pimlott said a proposed $150 million appropriation would make a nice start toward a long-term solution to wildfires in California.

If you go to Governor Brown’s site here, you find:

The tree die-off is of such a scale that it significantly worsens wildfire risk in many areas of the state and presents life safety risks from falling trees to Californians living in rural, forested communities. Several counties have declared local state of emergencies due to this epidemic tree mortality.

The Governor’s state of emergency proclamation on the tree mortality epidemic builds on the April 2014 executive order to redouble the state’s drought response, which included provisions to expedite the removal of dead and dying hazardous trees. Today’s proclamation helps identify high hazard zones for wildfire and falling trees that have resulted from the unprecedented die-off and prioritizes tree removal in these areas. It also calls for state agencies to take several actions to enable removal of hazard trees. Governor Brown’s letter to Secretary Vilsack requests urgent federal action, including additional technical assistance for private land owners, matching federal funding and expedited approval for emergency actions on federal lands.

In addition, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and CAL FIRE are convening a Task Force on Tree Mortality comprised of state and federal agencies, local governments and utilities that will coordinate emergency protective actions and monitor ongoing conditions.

I’d be interested in observations from California NCFPers on this..

9 thoughts on “California’s Efforts on Dead Trees and Fuels”

  1. I see some major differences between this and national forest fuel treatments. This is mostly about “hazard trees,” defined as those that start fires (e.g. by falling on power lines) rather than fuel reduction. It’s also about “safety risks” and “property damage” on private lands from dead trees (not burning trees). These aren’t the sort of things that are contentious for federal land managers.

    • Thanks for pointing out what should be rather obvious Jon. I think most people can see a huge difference between managing entire ecosystems and doing things to make sure that trees don’t grow up, and fall on, power lines.

    • Oh.. but I think I have seen a hazard tree project litigated.. I think it was in California also. But a quick search of blog posts yielded this one in.. Montana (!)

      The sentence I point to is “Cal Fire has partnered with the California Conservation Corps to organize crews to clear dead trees and conduct controlled burns in densely forested areas.” My italics.

      So I looked under Cal Fire programs:

      The Vegetation Management Program (VMP) is a cost-sharing program that focuses on the use of prescribed fire, and some mechanical means, for addressing wildland fire fuel hazards and other resource management issues on State Responsibility Area (SRA) lands. The use of prescribed fire mimics natural processes, restores fire to its historic role in wildland ecosystems, and provides significant fire hazard reduction benefits that enhance public and firefighter safety.
      “VMP allows private landowners to enter into a contract with CAL FIRE to use prescribed fire to accomplish a combination of fire protection and resource management goals. Implementation of VMP projects is by CAL FIRE Units. The projects which fit within a unit’s priority areas (e.g., those identified through the Fire Plan) and are considered to be of most value to the unit are those that will be completed. The Vegetation Management Program has been in existence since 1982 and has averaged approximately 25,000 acres per year since its inception.
      Landowners may choose to apply for participation in the Vegetation Management Program. The Unit VMP Coordinator will make the determination as to the suitability of a project for funding through the Vegetation Management Program. When approved as a VMP project, CAL FIRE assumes the liability for conducting the prescribed burn.

      VMP PROGRAM GOALS (Board of Forestry and Fire Protection)
      The goal of the Chaparral Management Program is to reduce the chance of large, damaging wildfires by reducing fire hazards on wildland in California. The Departments’ intent is to realize the best ‘mix’ of natural resource benefits from these lands, consistent with environmental protection and landowner/steward objectives. This includes three broad goals, which encompass most Chaparral
      Management objectives:

      Reduction of conflagration fires.
      Optimization of soil and water productivity.
      Protection and improvement of intrinsic floral and faunal values.

      Reduce the number and intensity of large, damaging wildfires with corresponding savings of suppression costs.
      Increase public safety.
      Increase water quantity and maintain water quality from managed watersheds.
      Decrease the potential for damage from flooding and siltation.
      Protect and improve soil productivity, and decrease erosion over the long term.
      Improve wildlife and fisheries habitat.
      Improve oak woodlands through fire management and regeneration.
      Establish and maintain desired plant communities.
      Propagate rare or endangered species of plants, which are fire dependent.
      Improve air quality over the long term.
      Improve forage and browse for livestock.
      Increase opportunities for recreation and improve scenic vistas.
      Decrease the risk to firefighters and other responders during wildland fires.
      Provide training opportunities for personnel in incident organization, operations, fire behavior, firing methods and effects of weather influences.”

      It’s a pretty comprehensive list of “why do vegetation treatments and prescribed burning?”
      My point being that it’s hard to see Calfire as biased toward tree-cutting (like the FS might be seen to be by some) and yet…

      • Just for the record, the hazard tree case in Montana involved security for grizzly bears; not an issue in California. There are probably other differences between national forests and SRA lands (the latter being private would also be one). And mechanical treatment clearly plays a small role in this state program. So if your question is why doesn’t CA get sued, I see a number of possible reasons.

  2. I see the the Forest Service has lost an entire year in responding to so many millions of dead trees. Why doesn’t Congress act to exempt ‘snag thinning’ from environmental review? What would it take to begin salvage operations next spring? Is this a perfect example of “Analysis Paralysis”, in Region 5? The clock is ticking.

      • I’ve seen SPI trucking salvage logs from the San Bernardino, about 12 years ago. Yes, it was old growth, so they probably went to Standard. Sierra Forest Products opened a new log yard, after the McNalley and other So-Cal fires. The central Sierra mills would welcome some larger salvage logs, regardless of how much small stuff is coming in. I’ve also seen SPI using their old mill site in Martell as a “log dump”. Even export waivers could be granted, for southern California Forests. It has been done, recently.

        I think it would have been better to quickly put a reasonable package together, as quickly as possible, then doing as much work as possible before a decision is made in Appeals Court. Then, maybe try fixing that interim plan, to finish whatever else needs to be done. Salvage plans have been made before and most of that science is still applicable. Remember, such salvage projects merely thin out the dead and dying trees. It’s not clearcutting and high-grading, in today’s Forest Service.


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