High Country News: 'California plans to log its drought-killed trees'

August 17, 2016

Over the past four years, California has lost more than 66 million trees due to drought, and now the state is planning to log dead trees to reduce the risk of devastating wildfires, according to High Country News (HCN), a nonprofit, independent media organization covering news of the American West. But the planned logging already is proving controversial.

In examining the risk of wildfires, HCN turned to an expert on the topic: Dominik Kulakowski, associate professor of geography and adjunct associate professor of biology at Clark University.

Here, an excerpt:

"Overwhelmed by the die-off, forest management agencies are resorting to a century-old strategy: removing dead trees to minimize future wildfires, which they predict will be inevitable and cataclysmic. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in October, citing a public safety hazard from falling trees and worsening wildfire risks. The tree mortality task force he convened has marshaled a small army to log over 6 million acres. ...

"But at the heart of the logging debate is the question of whether dead trees are a fire hazard.  The conventional assumption is that insect outbreaks increase wildfire risk because dead trees are more flammable than green ones. That is a conclusion most scientists have long disputed.  ...

"Hot, dry, windy climatic conditions, not dead-tree density, drive fire risk, scientists say. And not just in drought-plagued California: Between 1979 and 2013, increases in temperature and wind speeds combined with a greater number of rain-free days to lengthen fire seasons worldwide by nearly 20 percent, according to a study published in Nature Communications. As counterintuitive as it may seem, during extreme drought, green forests may be even more flammable, says Dominik Kulakowski, a research professor at Clark University in Massachusetts. Needles lost from the tops of trees are more important to reducing the risk of fire than the standing dead wood, he says.

"Whether scientific studies like these will affect California’s response is an open question. But the sheer magnitude of the die-off is forcing a focus on forest management that transcends the immediate emergency."