Two days ago, I noted the value of forest thinning in preventing and alleviating SoCal wildfires–and the harmful obstructionism of environmental groups standing in the way.
As flames ravage surrounding communities, this resort town high in the San Bernardino Mountains emerged largely unscathed, an island in a sea of destruction.
The credit for that isolated victory, federal officials say, should go to firefighting tactics, shifting winds and favorable terrain — and a sometimes controversial U.S. Forest Service effort to eliminate the tinder that fuels forest fires.
Since 2002, the Forest Service has removed millions of trees, thinned brush and cut low-hanging branches, creating fuel breaks around almost 80% of the community. Fires don’t spread quickly or easily through such areas, instead burning lower to the ground and with less intensity.
“The fuel breaks saved Lake Arrowhead,” said Randall Clauson, the Forest Service’s division chief for the San Bernardino National Forest and incident commander earlier this week on the two biggest wildfires still burning in the mountains.
He said he believes that, without the breaks, “the fire would have run right through Lake Arrowhead and gone to Highway 18, cutting off the evacuation route and probably resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives.”
But not everyone was convinced that forest-thinning itself played such a pivotal role.
“Thinning and cleanup of surface fuels really does help,” said Ken Larson, a fire behavior analyst with the Forest Service, stationed at the fire command post in the San Bernardino Mountains. “But there are many variables at play. Even that may not save structures in the face of extreme winds and extreme conditions.”
Still, evidence was dramatic in the thinned forest areas. In one cluster of Lake Arrowhead neighborhoods protected by fuel breaks, only a few stumps were burning and no trees were lost. Hundreds of surrounding homes were untouched.
Some of the worst-hit areas like Running Springs don’t have fuel breaks. Just 20% of Big Bear is protected by breaks, fire officials said.
But I’m just a Big Stupid Meanie for saying it.