A smoke machine at a gender reveal party. Sparks from flat tires. Escape from campfire. Illegal fireworks.
As California gets hotter and drier, a moment of human inattention or just plain bad luck will undoubtedly ignite another uncontrolled fire that sweeps thousands of acres of forest and dry bushes, killing people.
Last September, when millions of acres burned down, the U.S. Forest Service did something it had never done before to prevent people from setting more woodland on fire. It closed all of its 20 million acres of California forests to the public for nearly two weeks.
Some forests were closed for a month. At the same time, the managers of more than 2 million hectares of private forest block access to forests that are normally open to public recreation. Tens of thousands of hikers, campers, hunters, anglers, bird watchers, riders and cyclists had to avoid the forest.
Is this the future for California? Millions of hectares banned when the state’s spectacular natural landscape turns into kindling?
There is already evidence that last year’s California shutdown orders were not an anomaly. Citing extreme fire threats, Forest Service closed four of its five forests in neighboring Arizona this week. In early June, Sierra Pacific Industries – the largest privately owned landowner in California – announced it was closing its 1.8 million acres in California.
It was only for the fourth time in the company’s history that the risk of fire was assessed so high that the company closed all private forest areas to public use.
“This is the earliest closure of our properties, due to the fact that the fuel humidity in our forests is the lowest we have seen this time of year,” said Andrea Howell, corporate affairs director for Sierra Pacific, headquartered in Shasta County .
On the same day that Sierra Pacific closed its land, WM Beaty & Associates, which manages 280,000 acres of private forest in Plumas, Lassen, Modoc, Shasta and Siskiyou counties, announced its land was closed. It was only the second time in the company’s history after it was closed last year, said Ryan Hilburn, the chief ranger of the land management company.
“We want to protect the resource. That’s our goal, ”said Hilburn. “Our customers want people to be able to use their land. But the resources have to be there to use them, and so we have to do everything we can to protect them. “
Hilburn said the fire conditions were so dangerous that “you have almost no choice” but to keep the public out.
So far, the U.S. Forest Service has not said whether it plans to repeat last September’s California closings.
“Last year was unprecedented and resulted in a unique situation where we closed forests due to firefighters’ safety concerns due to the active conditions on site last year,” Forest Service spokesman Jonathan Groveman said in an email last year Month. “We can’t speculate in June about what this season will bring.”
An unprecedented closure
Last year California burned more acres than ever before in modern history, in large part due to a massive thunderstorm in August. About 4.4 million hectares were burned and at least 33 people died.
As the fires raged, the Forest Service announced on September 9 that all 18 of its national forests in California have been banned from the public. Ten days later, nine forests were allowed to reopen, although certain areas within those countries remained closed and open flames and campfires were prohibited.
The remaining forests across the state were closed for the remainder of the month. Four Southern California national forests – Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres, and San Bernardino – remained closed through early October.
“Violation of these prohibitions will result in a fine of no more than $ 5,000 for an individual or $ 10,000 for an organization, or imprisonment of no more than 6 months or both,” the Randy Moore said , the forester in. signed closure orders to take responsibility for California’s National Forests.
FILE – In this September 17, 2020 file photo, an air tanker prepares to drop retarders while fighting the August Complex fire in the Mendocino National Forest, California. The astounding scale of the California wildfires has reached another milestone. The new mark for the August Complex Fire in the Coast Range between San Francisco and the Oregon state line on Monday, October 5, 2020, exceeded 1 million acres. (AP Photo / Noah Berger, File) Noah Berger AP
The Biden administration named Moore as head of the US Forest Service this week. The Forest Service declined to make Moore available for an interview.
The Federal Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks Service did not issue a blanket closure order for California lands last year, although some properties, including Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, closed around the same time due to fires within the park boundaries.
Some open land proponents are concerned that there has been a disturbing trend over the last year of excluding the public from Forest Service properties that are taxpayers’ money-managed and set aside for eternity.
“This is the land of the people, and while we are all very concerned about fire, we cannot force everyone into a bubble in which nothing bad can happen. This is not freedom, “said US MP Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, in a written statement.
“The closure of public land last year set a historic precedent. When it closes again this year, it becomes a pattern and we have a real problem. ”
But other proponents of public land say they understood the decision made last year to keep people out of the forest.
Far too many people set off fireworks and build campfires even when they are banned – as was the case this summer in the Lake Tahoe area, says Kristine Koran, trail operations manager for the Tahoe Rim Trail Association, which promotes and manages the popular hiking trail around the lake.
“As much as we love backpacking and public land, we feel that what they did last year was right to keep the public safe,” she said.
Why some environmentalists worry
Some environmental groups are concerned about the precedent that the federal government set last year.
Ryan Henson, California Wilderness Coalition (CalWild) political director, said there were concerns that forest services will adopt a mindset: “We can’t even afford to farm the land, so let’s build a gateway on it.” ”
Henson said that if the forest service faces another overwhelming fire season this year, he hopes land managers will focus more on targeted closings like restricting vehicle traffic on certain roads while banning the opening of flames to prevent hikers and cyclists from entering to enable land to the public.
Timothy Ingalsbee, a former forest firefighter who now heads the environmental protection group Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, said he understands why forest managers don’t want the public to disrupt active firefighting efforts and reduce the risk of starting fires.
But allowing the public to enter the forest serves as an important control to ensure that the forests are being properly managed, Ingalsbee said.
He fears that excessive shutdown orders, which can last long after a fire has been put out, will allow foresters to discourage environmental groups and members of the public from keeping an eye on logging projects or other potentially environmentally harmful activities, he said.
“I think there are a lot of nefarious activities going on under the guise of ‘public safety’ or ‘forest fire prevention’,” he said.
Hunters fear countries will be closed
California’s big game hunters, in particular, are concerned about the possibility of forests being closed again.
The closings last year occurred during the short hunting season for deer, elk and pronghorn antelopes.
In certain sought-after hunting areas, the California Wildlife Agency issues permits to hunters who have won the lottery, with winners being selected on a weighted system based on the number of years they have competed.
Last year, many hunters who had applied for these award hunts for perhaps nearly 20 years and who eventually got a permit could not hunt because the public and private lands were closed.
“That’s what they’ve been looking for all year and then suddenly the carpet is pulled from under their feet,” says Devin O’Dea, the California Chapter Coordinator for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
“It’s not a good feeling.”
With big game permits generally non-refundable, the California Fish and Game Commission hunting authorities had to make desperate changes to regulations last year to allow reimbursement to hunters who had issued moose and antelope permits. The Commission put in place a new system so that applicants would not lose the weighted ‘preference points’ they had built up over the years.
The land closings came at the same time as more Californians bought fishing and hunting licenses during the pandemic last year, reversing the trend of declining sales. License sales are a major source of habitat funding for the State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Nearly two million sport fishing licenses were sold in California in 2020, up 11% from 2019. In addition, nearly 300,000 hunting licenses were issued in 2020, 9% more than the previous year.
Stafford Lehr, an assistant director for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said there was “a major concern” in his department that such private and public land closures would continue even as the state steps up efforts to attract more hunters and anglers in the field.
If the forests remain closed, Lehr said the department may need to consider moving the state’s big game season from its traditional August through October dates to later in the fall.
“I think it has to be part of the conversation if this becomes the new norm,” he said.
Map the forest fires in California
Discover where California has burned for the past 30 years. Click or tap the top left arrow to turn off decades of fires and make presentations easier. Use the basemap picker to view satellite imagery, and click or touch a fire to see its name, date, or cause.
Map: NATHANIEL LEVINE | Source: Cal Fire
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Ryan Sabalow reports on the environment, general news, and corporate and investigative stories for McClatchy’s western newspapers. Prior to joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter for The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight, and The Indianapolis Star.