[Image borrowed from Google Image; image did not appear in the original article.]

The  fire next time


Special to the News-Press

[first published in the Shoshone News-Press, April 4, 2013, pages 1, 4]

I lived in the Oakland-Berkeley Hills in the winter of 1972-1973.  It was the winter of the Big Freeze.  In December, unusually frigid conditions killed or injured thousands upon thousands of hill-area eucalyptus trees.  Truth be told, the eucalyptus were a fire menace even before the freeze.  They’re a messy tree with too much shedding and rapidly accruing fuel on the ground.  But the freeze, with its unwanted payout of dead or dying trees and mega-tons of added ground fuel, caught local residents’ attentions bigtime.  It was an unusual sociological phenomenon – a new and gravely threatening social problem confronted the mostly upscale residents of the East Bay hills almost overnight, and, as it were, from out of the blue.  People organized.  Well-argued letters were sent to representatives and agencies at any level of government that might be expected to listen and act.  Community meetings were held.  Petitions were circulated.  My lawyer neighbor, a woman who became vocal in the new outcry, parlayed her new activism into a seat on the Oakland City Council.  My then wife, already a veteran of political causes in Berkeley, became deeply involved. 

Yet, and despite all the motion and energy, nothing significant happened vis-à-vis the fire threat.  Volunteer citizens groups with chainsaws cut down dead trees and cleaned-up small areas – incidentally producing annoying and persistent cases of poison oak’s itchy skin rash for many.  The bottom-line impact of such efforts on the overall fuel load was negligible.  I’m sure we weren’t the only family in our neighborhood who started keeping packed suitcases and shoes by the front door in case of any signs of fire.  It was common knowledge that a conjunction of bad conditions – high summer temps, a drought period, strong winds, low humidity – could touch off a terrible firestorm.  We assessed alternative escape routes in case of fire coming from different directions.  Yet, in about 18 months or so, citizen activism and interest petered out.  There just wasn’t enough benefit being produced to sustain it.  Everybody still knew the day would come and it would be bad, really bad.  Everybody knew.  Everybody knew, and continued to know as the years passed.  But there wasn’t a muscular institution in place to effectively address the problem.  Everybody knew, but nothing happened, year after year.

And then, it happened -- the fire came.  It started on October 19th, 1991, two months short of 19 years since the Big Freeze.  Nineteen years of inattention, made possible by ostrich-like wishful thinking, finally got its fire.  Nineteen boy-we-should’a-done-something years.  But we didn’t.  The resulting fire devastated the Oakland-Berkeley Hills.  Twenty-five lives were lost – even though the hills were interlaced with residential area roadways for escape.  “More than one billion dollars in damage resulted from a fire that exceeded the worst expectations in the most concerned fire professionals,” concluded a major post-fire report.  “It was a fire that demonstrates how natural forces may be beyond the control of human intervention and should cause a renewed look at the risk of wildland-urban inter­face fire disasters,” the report continued.  Some 3,354 structures were destroyed.  Burned homes incinerated so fiercely that all that remained were home sites that looked like graves -- with erect chimneys looking like tombstones standing over bare concrete foundation slabs.  Cars that didn’t incinerate looked partly melted.  The 1,500 acres of the fire’s coverage area were beyond the capacity of 440 engine companies and 1,500 firefighters – the largest responding force ever recorded – to fight effectively.  Radio channel communications were overwhelmed and ineffective.  The fire ruled for three days.  Only a shift in the wind conditions and the exhaustion of fuels brought it to a close – and, it may be noted, also saved the City of Oakland.  All this happened despite the palpable foreknowledge of many, many hills residents, government players and agencies, and the local firefighting establishments.  The post-fire report noted:  “The factors that set the stage for this disaster were identified long before the fire occurred, and the potential consequences had been predicted by fire officials. Nevertheless, their warnings went unheeded, and the measures that could have reduced the risks were not implemented.”

I think of this gruesome history every spring, when summer is about to roll around once again in the Silver Valley.  We know that a devastating and uncontrollable forest fire can happen here because one did, in 1910.  Moreover, informed opinion has it that there is now substantially more fuel in our dense forests than there was in 1910 before the Big Burn.  Pre-Big Burn communities made ongoing use of their surrounding forests and thus thinned their stands – for home construction, for timber sales, for export to a booming national housing market, for heating, and for mines.  Today, all the firefighters and all the air tankers in a thousand mile area will not be able to thwart a raging crown fire like the one that swept through the Inland Northwest in 1910.  Now, too, with the U.S. Forest Service hogtied by its regulatory framework and timid about losing court challenges to the environmental community, the forest fuel load just builds and builds.  The Secure Rural Schools legislation of 2000 – now sunsetting – was a bone thrown to counties with large holdings of Forest Service or BLM lands (these cover 75% of Shoshone County’s land area).  Secure Rural Schools was a welcome stopgap measure, but it did nothing of course to manage our forests – on the contrary, it represented a partial compensation for the fact that nothing was happening in our forests.  Craig-Wyden, which the act was also called, wasn’t a particularly happy solution for Senator Craig at the time.  He rightly feared that compensating the counties for inaction in the forest would siphon away political pressure that would otherwise have built up in the counties to get forest management and forest-based economic activity going again. 

So.  We are looking at the prospect a very unhappy situation.  What to do?  The best available course of action is to exert increased citizen control of our federally owned forests.  At this moment in history, sustained citizen involvement has the single best chance for creating that muscular institution that the residents of the Oakland-Berkeley Hills area lacked.  The recognized medium for exercising citizen authority is the community forest health collaborative movement.  As it happens, I’ve had a little experience with such a collaborative in the past, especially with the one that emerged in Kootenai County several years ago.  These nascent institutions are slow, unwieldy, frustrating, and even annoying vehicles for getting something done.  Yet the situation is not unlike Winston Churchill’s famous characterization of democracy, which, he said, was a terrible form of government that just happened to be better than anything else that had been tried.  The same goes for a forest collaborative.

Former commissioners Jon Cantamessa and Vince Rinaldi took the lead in launching a Shoshone County Forest Health Collaborative in 2009.  They invested not inconsiderable energy and some Title III Craig-Wyden funds in the enterprise.  The value of the collaborative is that it generates projects that have been signed off by all the major players in the forest health social arena.  This creates a home-grown kind of authority and materially inhibits doctrinaire environmental challenges from afar.  Shoshone County’s collaborative already has two significant successes under its belt – the Wallace project, with respect to which it had an advisory role, and the Mullan project, where it played a larger, project-developing role.  The Mullan project has been sold to the Idaho Forest Group and logging and thinning are scheduled to begin in mid-July upcoming.  Those successes, moreover, may very well blaze the trail for subsequent projects and successes elsewhere in our county’s fuel-choked forests.  It’s a good, and hard-won, start. 

But there is a hitch.  Our newly elected county commissioners have substantially reduced the level of support for a coordinator position for the Shoshone County collaborative.  This of course is their prerogative.  My hope however is that they, before too long, reverse themselves on this decision.  The costs of hobbling the collaborative in this way are significant.  Bonner and Clearwater counties are fortunate in having secure sources of support for their collaboratives, including coordinator compensation.  We don’t, save for the Title III funding previously dedicated to that purpose.  A disabled Shoshone County collaborative, moreover, threatens to lose the knowledge and experience base that has cumulated over the three-plus years of the group’s operation.  In short, we’re risking losing the best institutional vehicle we have at our disposal – even, yes, with all its warts – in facing a collective problem we know is looming out there one day – dare I say it, like the Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire.  There is plenty to support in our new crew of commissioners’ program to enhance local spending of our county funds wherever possible.  Yet, cutting support for the Shoshone County collaborative, in this writer’s opinion, shouldn’t be part of the otherwise commendable goals they have in mind for our county government.