Clear Thinking

This section concerns fire and hardwood forest management at the rural/suburban interface.

Authorís Note: The web version of this chapter has color photogaphs from on or immediately near our property. The book photos are monochrome.

Itís impenetrable. The Santa Cruz Mountains are a typical of what happens when a forest is cleared to the ground and abandoned, and then chokes in its attempted recovery. To the trained eye, it feels like being in the throat of a working carburetor with wood for fuel.

Ceanothus cuneatis

Photo 1 - Ceanothus Incanus with a Rats' Nest (bottom center).

We left this one because there is no tree over it to burn. The rats' nest was left to feed the Great Horned Owls.

On the ground is a six-inch layer of leaves and twigs gathered by the crumbling trunks of trees, fallen by various fungi. Nothing grows there. There is the occasional home of the nesting wood rat, a meter-tall bale of haphazard twigs, usually supplied by an overhanging, half dead bush, fondly known as "buck brush." Itís a nice shrub really, if you can find one alive. They sprout after fires and grow to about fifteen feet tall, then fall over from root rot or get flattened by a falling tree. They spend the second half of their existence as an 8-foot tall mound of tinder with the occasional living branch. The poison oak takes up residence in the rat mound. Its cargo net of vines meanders up and out of the nest, supported by the dead buck brush, feeding on the droppings of its tenant rat. It weaves up into the canopy, seeking the tallest tree it can conquer with the shade and weight of its oily, toxic leaves.

In the corner of your eye is a skeletal manzanita, a graceful black candelabra lamenting the sun that once shown on silver-gray leaves and tiny white flowers. Half-dead madrone trees reach their blackened fingers into the sky. Their fallen parents lay busted up and dead on the ground at their feet.

Look up and you see a ceiling composed of perilously thin, thirtyish interior live oaks, packed in like commuters on a subway train, leaning out from the slope as far from each other as they can get. This place was an apple orchard sixty years ago, and these trees germinated simultaneously in what was an open chaparral. Most of them have included-bark crotches, or are merely top-heavy. Because of their structure, even if they are thinned and pruned, few will ever be structurally sound healthy trees. Maybe they hold each other up? The lack of light and air has allowed twig blight to set in, killing many lower branches. Tarzan vines of honeysuckle spiral up a few trunks constricting them into corkscrews. The leaves are up there, somewhere.

Photo 2 - Redwood Stump Cluster. Despite the fire-retardant properties of the bark, these trees are at significant risk of mortality, both because of fuel density and that the bark will not thicken sufficiently until the tree is nearly 200 years old.

The bay trees seem uniquely capable of entrapping twilight beneath them. They poke their heads above the oaks and kill them with shade. That lovely smell is a high-vapor-pressure solvent. You can burn one to complete ash the same day you cut it, in the dead of winter. In summer, a bay tree can be immolated in as little as thirty seconds. If they donít burn, after the firs and redwoods set in, they can fall over dead of ganoderma rot themselves.

In other canyons and valleys, you find the redwood stands. Unfortunately, the idea that redwoods donít burn is a belief commonly held by the fire-retarded, applicable to primeval forests but seldom to second growth, particularly farther south and east. In a second growth redwood stand a hot fire can kill, especially on slopes where the trunk collects a pile of branches and trimmings on the high side and forms a bonfire at the base of the tree.

In a second growth forest, the cut stumps sprouted so many trees so close together, that it is common to have single stumps that support over 15 trees within a 5-foot radius. They bash into each other in the wind, dropping piles of branches the base of the tree. Many of the crown sprouts donít succeed as full trees, and form a twiggy ladder up into the of lower branches of their bigger brethren. There was nothing growing on the ground in there either.

Charging through the understory is a wave of French Broom (Genista monspessulanus) forming an impenetrable wall six to ten feet tall, waxy leaves supported by yet more denuded twigs. After two or three generations, they thin a little bit as the stand clogs with the dead. Here and there are 30 to 60-foot long mounds of decaying broom, piled by bulldozers each time they cleared the land for sale. A mature bush can produce 1,500 seeds every year that can remain viable for a hundred years.

Photo 3 - Broom on the Edge of the Property Buffer.

The bushes on the far side are French Broom about 6-9 feet tall. Resprout is in the foreground.

Photo 4 - Douglas Fir on a Ridge Top. This tree is about 50 years old (30" Ddbh). If there were regular fires these trees would not be found on the ridges in great numbers. They are these days.

Photo 5 - Eucalyptus Grove Above Former Fire Site. This grove adjoins our property. A house burned in the 1940s about 250 yards down the draw from this photo. Near that house were a few eucalyptus that had been planted for shade. Their seed blew up to the top of the draw and this is the result. If it burns again, the infestation will progress over the ridge and far down into the next valley.

The Douglas firs blast out of the forest floor with their no-longer-needed branches draping onto the ground, forming spokes spiraling up what starts as a trunk but ends up with so many kinks and leaders that it hardly resembles an overgrown Christmas tree. They drip with sap running out of a rotting crotch to a full, resinous climax, often forked and shattered by the winds over the ridge-top, ready to shed one or both subsequent leaders. We had two such trees on the property adjacent to power lines within 100 yards of each other. Either of them would have made dandy igniters. Often those twisted firs ARE Christmas trees, or were. There is an abandoned tree-farm above that eucalyptus grove just outside the north end of our place: a stand of 70 to 125 foot trees that were spaced for harvest when they reached seven to ten feet in height up on the ridge like a Mohawk haircut.

The occasional hefty column of an oily eucalyptus lurks nearby, trashing anything underneath by dropping their branches. Beneath their rags of bark on the ground, the roots release a brew of aromatic oils, toxic to the plants that would challenge them. Eucalyptus is a dominant competitor. In a canyon adjoining one end of the property is five-acre stand, some overhanging power lines, waiting for the day that they get to burn, and spread their seed in the fire draft for a over quarter mile. Nothing else grows there. There were two-acre thatches of acacia next to the eucalyptus. Nothing else grew in there, either.

It was impressive. It was an impending disaster. It was for sale.

When we saw it, we were in love.

It was either love or total insanity. To do something that required that much work and risk could be explained by nothing else. This was it: a piece of land to cherish, to save, and to raise the children yet to come, to love the land. There wasnít any reason, there wasnít deliberation; this wasnít an investment. This was home.

When we bought the place friends told us to take lots of "before" pictures. We kept telling them that it was fruitless, but nobody seemed to get the idea: "Go crawl inside a bush and try to take a picture. What would it look like?" Blank stare. They must not do much crawling inside of bushes at home. I tried video once, but the auto-focus kept seeing the twigs, while crawling along trying to shove the branches out of the way, so that I could force my body through. Increasing the depth-of-field only made it seem like the inside of a bush again, and it was a mighty jiggly shot, so video wasnít much use.

Heck, if anybody wants to get a feel for "before" around here they only have to go across the road and try forcing their body through over there. There is so blasted much "before" around here, itíll make you sick to your stomach. It can take about 20 minutes to force your body only about 100 yards. (I once found myself lost within 50 feet of the County road until I heard a car on it, so that I knew where I was.) You have to crawl, and leave survey tape tied to bushes at regular intervals just to find your way around. When youíve found an area which you can fantasize as both accessible and big enough for a house site, you get the hard choice to put down the earnest money and, with permission, start to clear.

Most people donít know much about such things and neither did we, but with a sort-of-trusty Homelite® 240 in hand we set about cutting our way in, dragging the brush into piles and wondering if we were crazy.

You have to be. The first sort of life-and-death issue to get out of the way is a little matter of poison oak. Itís an amazingly adaptable plant. You can find it tangled in brush, wrapped around "widow makers" in the trees, climbing up a redwood over 100 feet (we left that one as a monument), free-standing trees (left a few of those too), crawling along as just another ground cover, or in huge, matted piles. I wasnít trying to get rid of the stuff, it was a matter of getting most of it back onto the ground and out of the trees before it killed them. There is only one problem with dealing with it of course, it can be toxic as hell to people. The stuff is sneaky. When youíre pulling it out of a tree, it has this uncanny ability to brush the freshest little fronds right across your sweating face. Itís hard not to imagine the sound of hissing laughter.

A case of poison oak can be nasty, especially when it goes systemic on you, covering your entire body. I remembered getting a case of it as a kid, but didnít quite know what was going to happen as an adult. There were all sorts of lore stories from my friends about Indians drinking tea from the stuff (how long did they live?) and other dubious ways to acquire immunity. So, after a couple of trips to the emergency room for prednisone prescriptions, and the associated weirdness that came with that, I got lucky and developed an immunity, and none too soon. It got to the point where I could tolerate the sap spraying off the chainsaw all over my arms, or dripping off the cut stubs as I pulled it out of trees. When it burns, it volatilizes into a noxious cloud. I maintain my hard-won immunity and get an inoculation by working with a little more at least yearly. There is no telling what the long-range effects are on your body. Urushiol, the active in poison oak, can cause internal damage to your organs. I know I shouldnít fool with those TOXIC CHEMICALS, but when itís a matter of the health of your forest, what else can you do?

Poison oak is a great topsoil builder, makes a nice groundcover, or a dandy privacy fence when you weave the tendrils into the bushes along the road. It gives them more color in the fall, too. Gophers donít seem to mess with it, so it may well provide a way to help control erosion on the out-fill banks of roads. The root systems are like a mesh of underground cables. Until I develop an efficient propagation technique, I chop it into mulch or burn it.

Maybe you organic gardeners out there wonder about burning, ĎDoesnít that cause air pollution? Why didnít you haul it to the dump, or compost it?í Well folks, among other things, there is this little matter of sheer scale.

Photo 6 - A Typical fuel load in our neighborhood from across the road. One has to use an opening such as a road because there is no way to photograph it otherwise. Fir, oak, French broom, hazelnuts, poison oak, vinca, madrone...

Photo 7 - More fuel across the road. Bay, fir, and oaks dead from "sudden oak death syndrome" (Phytophthora infestation). The scale is about 30 feet from top to bottom.

Within the area immediately around our present house, about six acres, during the first few months of thinning we gave away a mere 35 cords of firewood (about twenty dump trucks full, of oak, acacia, eucalyptus, and junky fir). We generated some 1,100 cubic yards of chopped cuttings. (I had to recalculate the number four times; I didnít believe it either.) It still looks like an oak parkland forest except where the eucalyptus and acacia were (where there was nothing else). One alternative is just to chop the stuff where you are into mulch, but this is subject to total volume. Sometimes it is just too much. Trying to drag the stuff out to a chipper is a bit cumbersome when the closest you could park it is a hundred yards away, you have a foot thick bed of cuttings to tangle with both your feet and that treetop you are dragging on a 30į slope. So you burn.

A lot of the time you donít have too many choices about where you are going to burn. Especially when it is the first one.

Imagine that your job is to reduce an enormous fuel load. Brush and trees are everywhere. Your goal is to have somewhat less of it, so you cut a bunch of it down and build "burn piles." Now, some clever person down at the CDF figured out that the way for the public to do "safe" burning is to have a 4' x 4' x 4' pile with a thirty-foot (30') non-combustible radius around it to start.

One problem: Where in the hell are you going to get thirty feet? You could make more than a 4' x 4' x 4' pile from a 4' x 4' area of brush and scrubby trees! You would end up with so many piles you couldnít walk between them! Besides, how much good was burning one pile going to do with all the rest of the stuff still up in the air above it?

We had chosen the prospective house site in what one might psychologically call a clearing. "Clearing" meant that, by the time we had "cleared," we could SEE thirty feet; the gap between the treetops was maybe ten. Water? A fire hose? Yeah, right, maybe a quarter mile away. The 4' x 4' x 4' piles end up, well, 5' x 5' x 4'?, uh, 8' x 5' x 4'? They were about six feet from the starter pile and about two feet apart. All were oriented to roll into the first pile. It wasnít too hard to visualize. The sparks fly out of the first pile, into the second, a chain reaction starts and forty-foot flames leap into the forest. A conflagration ensues and the only good thing that happens is we donít get sued, Ďcause we be charred to a dental record! The emergency plan was to shove the piles into each other to concentrate the fuel and keep it away from the forest. Remember that monk in Saigon?

They wonít let you burn until January, because the Central Coast Air Quality Management District wants to wait until the inversion layers have broken down and the CDF has decided that there is NO chance of the place being too dry. To decide by measured fuel moisture content and climatic conditions must not be practical, although we do pay them tax money to measure both. The only problem is that the weather doesnít know about the calendar. The winter of 1989-90 was a drought year. The burn piles kept drying and drying. December kept crawling and crawling. We kept piling and piling. I kept replacing chainsaw parts: bars, chains, and clutches, until finally my dad took pity on me and "loaned" me his Echo 302S (indestructible chainsaw).

Finally it came: January 1. We were on a twelve-month term, 13% renewable land loan (with four points for each six-month extension), with a beneficent lender we called Louie-the-Loan-Shark, one of those "How-to-buy- a-half-million-dollar-house-with-no-money-down" situations. (When the guy laughed, it was scary. Couldnít he just show a little less enthusiasm for his work in the presence of his customers?) "Did you borrow any part of the down payment?" "Oh no, of course not!" We had to burn because we had to get out of this and into something "less dangerous": a construction loan?

Oh yeah, dangerous, January 1. So there we stood, rake and shovel at the ready, looking at the first burn pile. It was almost all broom, a compressed mass of twigs, three feet high and five long. I cut it in half. It was cool and clear, one of those California winter mornings to die for. It was still a little too dry. Well, at least whatever was going to happen was going to happen fast. It was easy to visualize the embers flying out of the top. Maybe they would cool enough before they came back down? Grab the Ace Hardware, homeowner-grade propane torch, strike, light, deep breath, and it goes straight up in a thin column between the trees.

I can still hear it. Thank you God, thank you.

Roll the second pile into the first, then the third. They rolled a lot more easily than expected, but the body gets a mite abraded and the spiders that had taken up residence in the piles, werenít too happy with me. After a day of this, after drinking about three quarts of water, and after a whole lot of worry about the pounding heart from probable carbon monoxide poisoning, it was done. We had a clearing. Now we could start thinning trees, now we could have some REAL burn piles. Some were sixty feet long. The area under control grew to about four acres. We could breathe, and see, and build.

Photo 8 - Oak Parkland Forest After Thinning.

It has taken approximately 6 years to develop any groundcover as the soils in this spot are too poor and dry to support much more than the most aggressive weeds.

Photo 9 - This was thinned and the open area stirred with a bulldozer. Note the verdant and diverse groundcovers and bushes. This is a north-facing slope with better soil.

After some ten years of this process, we have almost achieved a degree of mitigation of the fire risk sufficient to begin undergrowth control by less aggressive means. Another way to say this is: Reduce the dominance of the pest, then let the trees, bushes, and groundcovers recover. Thin and prune the trees to the point that they can recover from blight diseases and survive a relatively cool fire, and then have one. The current plan is to conduct a partial factorial array of controlled burn experiments in conjunction with CDF. The purpose is to monitor the sprout rate of broom versus native bushes, and determine in places if this sort of program works to help germinate some natives without their being overwhelmed by sprouting broom. Hopefully, it works to reduce the broom seed bank.


One problem: The permit will require a "Vegetation Management Plan" stamped by a Registered Professional Forester: $2,500 (and a LOT more for a fire contractor). If CDF wonít do the backup, imagine what the insurance for a private fire contractor would be, all because of fuel that is NOT on our property. Then thereís the setup and... gosh sounds sort of like timber harvesting where you have to do a minimum amount to justify doing it. Then we have bigger fires that are harder to control with higher risks. So nobody does it. (Help me sell books and Iíll give it a shot.)

Then you get weed infestations, then a pest die-off, then conflagrations, then landslides, then weeds, then...

After dealing with the brush and scraggly runts of half-living trees, it was time to deal with the monster weeds. Many of these were exotics such as eucalyptus and acacia, but others were merely out of their normal place, such as the firs up on the ridge. The latter, I came to judge as an artifice of fire suppression. As mentioned earlier, several overhung power lines, but, because there was more than 10 feet of clearance, the power company wouldnít touch them. Public Utilities Commission specifications, you know. None were healthy. (One was "S" shaped, had five tops with a dead spike up the middle, and termites thirty feet up from the bottom.) All were less than 40 years old. $800 later, down they came. Luckily a friend of mine hauled off the logs to make something of them or it would have cost a lot more time.

Try dealing with a 4' diameter eucalyptus tree over 150' tall without heavy equipment. We had a half dozen such trees and scads of smaller ones. The branches can be 12-18" in diameter. If they are growing among trees you want to keep, you have to climb them and perhaps even lower the branches on a cable block... When you climb them to take them apart from the top, it takes a lot of cutting which takes a bigger saw and LOTS of trips down for gas, oil, food and water and then its back up again. It takes a while. Two-foot long rounds can weigh a couple of hundred pounds and branches half a ton.

Photo 10 - Our property directly across from Photo 1. Look at the ground covers: ferns, maples, blackberries, poison oak, irises, yerba buena, hedge nettle...

One of these monsters, a four-footer, was arching way over a public road, loaded up on its own weight like a giant catapult. Under a load like that, it can split and run a crack down the trunk that kills the climber cabled to the tree. We pulled it back over center with a D-6 cat and a BIG winch. It crunched a nice madrone on the way down, but the euc is gone. The madrone resprouted from its roots. It was worth the trade.

After you have gone through the considerable project of getting one of these monsters down without killing anybody, crushing any structures, blocking a public road, taking down power lines, or destroying bunches of trees, there is still the problem of getting rid of all that mass. That takes heavy equipment too, unless you want to leave four-foot diameter rounds scattered about.

Who wants to split 50 cords and figure out how to sell it? It was a high school dropout with a splitter and a dump truck. How did he get them out?

That takes a road. One of the reasons we bought the place was that it had lots of roads to get to the trees, do the work, and get them out. Though eucalyptus makes dandy pellets, nobody wanted them enough to cut them down for me. At least they paid for hauling them away and didnít go to waste.

Then there were the acacias. They look innocuous. They arenít terribly big. There were hundreds of them. The problem is that they fall over, regularly, and lay on top of each other in a 30' thick tangle. The darned things load up under the weight of their relatives and have very slick bark on denuded trunks. The trick is cutting the mess apart without the pieces unloading suddenly and snapping at you like a bad jungle movie, or sliding down the others on top of the woodsman trapped in the tangle with a running chainsaw. It was scary. Most people use a bulldozer. It was nearly ten years before they were all gone, and new trees are still sprouting every year. One thing about eucalyptus and acacia, they do burn hot.

The broom sprouts by the tens of thousands every year. We also get to fight back the invading thistles, pasture grasses, hairy catís ear... but there is compensation. The oaks responded gladly, some have grown fifteen feet in but a decade. The ground covers are coming back as an aromatic carpet of roses, poison oak, honeysuckle orchids, yerba buena, jasmine, hedge nettle, native blackberries, numerous wildflowers, and various ferns. There are thousands of variegated irises now and even some scarlet columbine. There are dozens of new lilac bushes in two colors, one new to us, Ceanothus thyrissiflorus. There is new monkeyflower, toyon, yerba santa, coyote bush, grease bush, buckeye, manzanita, and black sage, all now growing in and around a forest floor that had been nearly dead or overrun with pests, because a hardwood forest had been thinned. Now after ten years, we are finally planting, replacing poorly structured older bushes and trees with transplanted juveniles that, with space, time, and a few ashes, now have a chance to grow.

Timber and Fuel Management: The Residential Buffer

The West Coast has a climate that is conducive to vegetative growth. The summers are long and dry. Relative humidity is low. It is a combination that insures the potential for periodic fires.

We know that historically some fires were humanly set, although perhaps we may never know how often (summer lightning in this area is rare). The process reduced average vegetative cover, trimmed low branches, provided nutrients, and scarified various seeds for germination. Many plants in these mountains cannot reproduce without it. Frequent fires progress relatively slowly and leave sufficient cover for escaping animals. Frequent broadcast burning is a process that we have, perhaps ignorantly interrupted.

We canít have a fire like that. There is too much fuel.

These mountains are a series of narrow, steep-walled canyons that might as well be chimneys. When the conditions are right: hot, steep, dry, and overgrown, the rising column of combusting gases generates high winds. The condition is called a firestorm. Temperatures reach 1,700įF. The winds blow 60 miles per hour. The flames rise over 300 feet. Burning embers fly over a mile and start new fires of their own. Try fighting a fire like that. CDF canít. They have to let it burn, until either the weather changes or the fire runs out of fuel. We donít dare let one get going. There is too much to lose.

In California, the minimum clearance, between combustibles and a single-family residence for a house to be insured in a rural area is 30 feet. Assume a house in a transitional forest region, typical in Santa Cruz County. Most use electricity to pressurize their water (In a fire, the power is the first thing to go). Not a few have embrittled PVC or polyethylene water pipes on top of the ground. Many stand on 4X4 wooden stilts with wooden lath skirts and are sheathed with redwood shingles over tarpaper, with inadequate roofing and tree droppings in the rain gutters. The trees are huge, often lean, and have heavy branches overhanging the houses.

How much information is needed to estimate the scope and risk of a loss? Is the sheathing material stucco, siding, or shingles? Does it have a deck overhanging a steep slope? If the house is above a slope of dense conifers or bay trees, triple that 30 feet, at least. If it is nestled in redwoods, how old and how dense are they? How much undergrowth is there? What kinds of bushes there are, how old, and how they are distributed makes a huge difference. How much water is available at what pressure? Are the roads adequate for reasonable access? Do the people know how and where to evacuate? Will the fire crews be able to get in while people are running for their lives?

The price of residential insurance coverage is determined by a rating of the roof material, the age of the building, and how far the house is from the nearest fire station. Think about the above. Should all houses have the same fire control specifications and pay the same insurance, regardless of the external circumstances? If the house meets the 30-foot minimum then, if it burns, the insurers have to pay and pass on the cost to the entire state? Does that self-defeating character sound familiar?

Insurance is a State-regulated system.

If we were to reduce the fuel risk by removing some of the fuel before a burn, we could manage these fires. The problem is that it would cost a lot of time and money and would upset some powerful people. That means it wonít get done unless somebody can pay for at least part of it by selling logs.

Most of the urban professionals who inhabit rural forests think that a forest choked with brush and scraggly trees is "natural." Their faith in forest preservation is unchallenged by the tragic personal experience of a firestorm. Many share a cultural history of activism against environmental abuse. Their representatives feed off that angst and are now forcing passage of regulations that may eliminate the very forestry practices that can reduce and control the fuel. Because of the restrictions on logging, there are also fewer people with the opportunity, capital, and trained personnel to fight these fires safely.

The public has demanded rules protecting a socialized commons: "clean air." A rule system can only regulate human sources of atmospheric pollutants. "Natural" air isnít clean. When we have controlled burns with planned ignitions, they cause "air pollution." If it is a wildfire, the media call it "smoke."

Regulating prescribed fire into oblivion may protect CDF and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) from accountability, but it gives us a system that fails its purpose. It is assured to destroy the historic fire balance of the forest and has elevated the risk of fatal conflagration to inevitable.

Environmental activists think they have a better idea of how to manage the inevitable catastrophic fire. Call it "inevitable" and let it burn. It is a policy that has not been subjected to serious scrutiny. When we have conflagrations, there is a real possibility that recovery to pre-suppression condition will be impossible. This is largely because of the threat of exotic weeds and the loss of indigenous species. Conflagrations are a risk to biodiversity through habitat conversion and subsequent species loss. Restoration requires planting and rearing of local natives. One can do irreversible harm to local stocks by going into an area with substitute cultivars. To have a sufficient inventory takes preparation, propagation specialists, and facilities. Sometimes native plants are very tricky to propagate, especially by seed. Animal collection is even more problematic because there are issues of behavior modification. To have replacement native species requires either planning or limited scope.

Would government agencies and environmental activists destroy forest ecosystems over the entire coastal region, put thousands of lives at risk, and waste billions in capital the name of protecting urban air quality and a social preference for shade? Yes. That is what a democratized commons can do.

Every summer in Santa Cruz County, there are many days with temperatures over 90įF. When the wind blows out to sea, the firefighters hold their breath while the RH drops to 15%. There hasnít been a fire anywhere in the area for over fifty years. The fuel load is vastly higher than that which fed the Santa Barbara fire in 1997 or the Oakland Hills fire of 1991, and the infrastructure is far worse. There is only one road in most residential areas, usually but a single lane, often miles long. These roads eventually lead to State Highway 9, which has but two lanes and in many places neither shoulders nor interconnecting bypasses.

The firefighters donít dare let one get going. It is almost like an addiction. There is no doubt of an eventual day of reckoning. On days with high fire potential, they fly the bombers full of fire-retardant pre-positioned in the air. Infrared sensors have replaced the watchtowers of old. They keep putting out the skirmishes, but they know that someday, the "inevitable" will happen and a small fire will become a disaster. If the conditions are right, if the wind is blowing hard enough, if the relative humidity is low, if itís hot, and if the ignition point is remote, they wonít be able to stop it.

It just has to be big enough that it was not their fault. Itís not. Itís ours.

One burning log or panicked driver blocking the highway and all the roads will be choked, bumper to Beemer, with people trying to escape, perhaps thousands of them. The fire trucks wonít get in. The people wonít get out.

Theyíll call it an Act of God.

Motive & Means

The obvious question regarding this proposal is: "Where will we get the MONEY, time, individual energy, and expertise to fix a problem like this?"

We are spending the money now, wittingly or not. The Oakland Fire of 1991 cost $1.7 billion. If one looks at residential insurance as a risk management business instead of regulated bank protection, then we are obviously not managing fuel around homes effectively because insurance is not priced according to risk. Were one to consider the total economic cost of a firestorm, homes in an overgrown forest are way underinsured. If one includes the ecological costs, such forests are at astronomical risk.

A firestorm is a capital loss no matter who makes money on promises to pay it back. An insurance policy on a $300,000 structure with a $2,000 deductible costs around $900 per year. This calculates to a replacement payback period less a return to the stockholders (assuming no inflation), of perhaps as little asÖ 75 years without a loss? One might conclude that it is unlikely that the true cost of risk plus a reasonable profit is reflected by insurance premiums. When considering the impact of fire settlements upon future insurance rates statewide it is obvious that one can play that game only so many times.

Suburban residents in Santa Cruz County are demanding that the Board of Supervisors provide them with either timber harvest rules or zoning laws that maintain the forest on someone elseís land to their liking. For most of them, their liking is a vastly reduced harvest with "no cut buffers" around riparian and residential areas. What they are demanding is for the rest of the State to bear the cost of an unacceptable risk and subsidize thereby their capital gain in residential real estate while the policy does more harm than good.

The real estate industry would find higher property value in a gardened appearance to the forest over and above what they find so attractive now. They surely do not want to deal with the impact of a catastrophic fire. The only reason these forests are a draw for new homebuyers is that they are still there. At the rate houses are being built, and given the accruing fuel load, these conditions wonít last forever. Everybody except the activists seems to understand that.

How disinvested are forest landowners? Where else can you find an industry with billions in assets and no idea within 25% how much that is? Why should some landowners have to cut more trees to pay for permission to do it, while other forests are choking to death and facing eventual annihilation?

Politicians have found environmentalist support to be a direct line to higher office. If they get saddled with a lawsuit the size of Montana for taking the forest the voters will be stuck with a resulting tax bill or fewer services. If the whole thing burns to a crisp, it wonít look good for their future. Would they like to have a way for the lawsuit go away and run for higher office upon a popular solution to a longstanding problem?

Equal Opportunity

Maybe we should try another way? Though the principles in this book are scalable to large, complex problems, such things are usually comprised of components that are more tractable. No management scheme should be adopted without tests and trials. This proposal is an experiment to develop means to use free markets to manage competing interests in the forest at the rural-suburban interface. It is a first step in management contracts, risk-based pricing, and best practice timber and fire management.

This plan can deliver a forest that local residents would find aesthetically pleasing, provide a legitimate income to the forest landowner, and safely reduce the fuel load around many of these homes. It would restore a more natural balance of flora and perhaps fire. It invests capital in forest health and can differentiate to local circumstance. It respects individual tastes, and pools risk to temper radical ideas. It might lead to organized, neighborhood-based forest management and habitat restoration activities.

There is an obvious opportunity in the rural suburban forest. If the homeowner really wants to live in an old growth forest, then perhaps they would purchase a management plan from the landowner that will deliver upon that goal and reduce the risk that it wonít ever happen. Perhaps that risk-reduction business might finance some of the work?

Were insurance rates reflective of reality there would be incentive for homeowners to thin for an effective distance around structures. It might seem that the preference of the insurer would be bare dirt, but it isnít that simple. There are other risks involved, for example: landslides, falling trees, and floods. Roots hold hillsides together. Vegetative cover reduces droplet impingement erosion and adsorbs a fraction of the runoff. Trees protect aesthetic property value but they might need pruning. Drainage design is an art form. Who is best qualified to make that call, among all these competing ecological needs? Foresters and timber operators are.

The insurance industry could retain foresters specializing in fire ecology and vegetation management to assess the home for its balance of risks as sets the price of coverage. The policy price can be scaled according to the risk score. Given liability for false assessment as balanced against competitive need for sales there would be no incentive for extortion.

The homeowners could then hire the work or perform it themselves under direction and training from a forester (yup, homeowner education). Properties under suburban forest hazard management would then qualify for an insurance pricing scheme based upon the selected landscaping product (even if the product is "no cut"). It could be a range of products, from a mixed parkland forest of majestic oaks and herbaceous groundcovers, to a plan delivering something similar to an old growth redwood stand. There could be a lot in between. There could be various prices for the degree of attention to detail, proximity to the house, value of the stand, and degree of risk. Under InsCert, these plans could recover some of the cost by selling logs without a permit. Just imagine how homeowners might feel knowing that they were participating in the restoration of local habitat instead of making a mistake. Wouldnít it be preferable that the money went into restoring the land, rather than rebuilding after a holocaust?

Now, what happens if some of the land that must be thinned in order to qualify for the insurance benefit is owned by an adjacent timberland owner? This is where the market in land use contracts comes into the equation.

The adjacent landowner could sell a contract for whatever applicable style of forestry the homeowner prefers. The difference in present value, between the timber resource when managed for maximum capital gain and managed as preferred by the purchaser of the contract, could set the price of the contract. It would cost less if integrated into a larger harvest plan as a sector operation.

The forest landowner or management contractor would collect and integrate scientific data, to be applied to a plan of hazard reduction, mitigation of exotic species, propagation of local natives, or preparation for a controlled burn. The coordination of specialties, required to complete the work under a fiduciary, provides the means to balance competing interests. That management market creates an incentive to get the work done at low cost. Insured accountability provides reason not to take too many risks.

The thinning work can be done and surplus logs sold for renewable fuels, pulp, or lumber, thus offsetting part of the cost. The insurance policy price increase can be used to finance the initial hazard reduction work over an extended term if a maintenance contract is let for the property. If the jobs look too small for the LTO to consider, the residents would have reason to organize in order to bring in economies of scale.

The timber operators want the work, but more importantly, they want steady work. It helps them size their operations and equipment to available jobs. It maintains a steady work force, which improves teamwork and allows for continuous training and higher levels of skill. Would that reduce mistakes?

The local mills want the logs, but even more they want to manage the forest on the stump much the way larger concerns do. This reduces inventory costs for decks of logs outside the mill. It allows a rapid response to price changes.

Foresters would also appreciate continuous management of larger acreage without the need to concern themselves with maximizing production. This might come as a shock to some people, but foresters become foresters BECAUSE THEY LOVE FORESTS. To participate in the management of forests for aesthetic value might be regarded as a privilege. To return lands restore fire cycles, to get rid of exotic pests, to do scientific work and to see the lands they love maintained as productive forest in perpetuity, would befit their personal career goals.

There are arguments that determining risk associated with fuels is a matter of subjective judgement. This will remain true until sufficient experiments are conducted and measurement methods optimized. There is a huge financial incentive to reduce additional risk associated ignorance. There is an array of technical opportunities for this kind of knowledge development work that a rural association of forest landowners could complete and sell.

There is a risk that homeowners with high fuel levels inflict, not only upon themselves, but also upon the entire area. Those who do not pay for risk reduction should bear an increasing fraction of the remaining collective risk as others complete the work. There needs to remain a group motive to assist, educate, motivate, or drive out, the uncooperative individual as a socializing force for neighborhood cooperation. If but one remaining person wants to bear nearly the total financial cost of additional risk to both themselves and the entire neighborhood and also bear the social pressure on the part of their neighbors for the privilege of a half-dead Monterey Pine tree leaning over their shake roof let them pay for it. Itís a free country, or it ought to be. The practice of threatening policy cancellation does not work. Price risk instead.

There are also neighborhood capital assets that figure into total risk. Roads should provide a functional means of evacuation to a safe site. Participation in neighborhood evacuation planning should be part of the contract. Once a total neighborhood has achieved a hazard reduction attainment, a second collective insurance discount could be derived.

Perhaps such a realignment of interests would form a more functional political majority. It would be comprised of residents who understood the risk of a fire or trees falling on their houses and preferred a more natural look to the forest, forest landowners who want to thin their forests and make a buck, State fire and regulatory officials tired of failure, insurers tired of losing money, and local banks afraid of ruin, as well as a group of more progressive environmentalists.

This plan reverses the current trend of asking fewer acres to produce more wood. The harvests would be smaller in percentage but from more acreage than before. There would probably be a larger total harvest. The plan raises total revenue for foresters, loggers, and mills and raises tax revenue. Most important: It would be a way to help preserve timberland as a healthier forest, finding its highest value without political distortion. It beats being trapped and burned to death by a random conflagration every time.

Four Fingers and a Sore Thumb

What needs to be done to make it all happen? It will clearly take action on the part of several interests. This section briefly lists suggestions for each.

Insurers and the Certification Enterprise

Forest Landowners Associations

Neighborhood Associations



As was discussed earlier, one of the main barriers to this plan is the cost of getting a Timber Harvest Plan (THP) and with it, pleasing every other agency with its fingers in the pie. Under this proposal, there is no THP. It is insured, certified best practice management. No permit. Government is in the way. Government should instead:

State and Federal law must be amended concerning controlled burns where fire is a natural part of the ecology. When we plan ignitions, we have choices about the atmospheric conditions that minimize the air pollution impact of smoke. If the fuel isnít burned, the carbon will be exhaled as CO2 from fungi. When we donít have fires, we increase airborne spores that contribute to allergies and asthma. Air quality authorities should amend regulations concerning pellet furnaces for central heating. It is a cheap, renewable way to make fuel reduction more profitable and its combustion less polluting. The Clean Air Act must reconsider "attainment targets" where demonstrably natural polluting processes exist.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), EPA, and Cal. Dept. of Fish and Game (CDFG) should realize that their plans to protect salmonid populations should balance the risk of siltation released by timber harvest operations against the risks of stream pollution resulting from residential construction and catastrophic firestorms. These people are causing more problems than they solve, as shall be discussed in Chapters 3 and 4.

Natural Process: That Environmental Laws May Serve the Laws of Nature, ISBN: 0-9711793-0-1. Copyrights © 1999, 2000, & 2001 by Mark Edward Vande Pol. All rights reserved.