TCS Daily

Ticking Firebombs

By Alan Oxley - November 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Having swathed ourselves in moral guilt for the impact human activity is having on the environment, we seem to be overlooking the fact that our efforts to fix problems can be misplaced. The psychology of this is interesting. It may well be dictated by desire about where to apportion blame. The phenomenon of the rise of the devastating wildfires, most vividly those in Southern California, but also in the rest of the world, illustrates this neatly.


For several years, California's forestry industry has been warning of imminent disaster. California's forests, like those in other parts of America, have been turned into a vast tinderbox. Regular fireburning to reduce undergrowth has been reduced and logging and forestry have been prohibited or restricted in increasingly larger areas.


In June 2002, David Bischel, former CEO of the California Forestry Association, writing in the Auburn Journal pointed out unprecedented fires were burning in Arizona and Colorado, following major wildfires in California's Sierra Nevada two years earlier. "The biggest single threat to the integrity and sustainability of our 192 millions acre national forest system is the risk of high-severity wildfire," he warned.


He might have also mentioned human life and property were threatened as well. Twenty-two lives and nearly 4000 structures, mostly homes, have also been lost in the Southern California fires. The fires are bigger and more intense than ever before. What's more, this seems to be a global phenomenon.


In the southern hemisphere summer this year, there were record fires in Eastern Australia. Wildfires drove into the national capital, Canberra, for the first time in its 80 year existence, destroying 600 homes. There were record fires in the Eastern States of Victoria and New South Wales. The Worldwide Fund for Nature, then Greenpeace, wheeled out one of the leading contributors to the UN IPCC global warming report to say that global warming was a contributor to the Australian bushfires.


Senator John McCain evidently agrees. Referring to the Southern California fires in a recent debate on global warming in the US Senate said "The manifestation of climate change is occurring as we see on the West Coast of the United States of America." He is from Arizona but the Governor of the State sees it differently. After the devastating 2002 fires in Arizona, she said: " We've got to clean up theses forests. Mother nature is telling us to do so."


She seems on firmer ground. Foresters and scientists have been warning for some time that locking up forests and leaving them to their own devices doesn't work. Take Australia's native forests. They have been fire managed by Aboriginal Australians for at least 20,000 years. Seeds of several species of tree in Australia only release from pods under the heat of fire. Since European settlement began 200 years ago, fireburning has stopped. Forest around Australian cities is now denser than ever before.


When commercial logging started, at least some degree of forest management took place. But all State governments have reserved large tracts of land and have not replaced the active management which came with logging. Peter Attiwill a botanist at Melbourne University warned in the Melbourne Sun Herald after the 1997 fires in mountain ranges on the fringe of Melbourne that eucalypt forests produce 10 tonnes of combustible litter per hectare each year. Failure to clear undergrowth was creating a forest timebomb.


The timebomb went off this summer in Eastern Australia. The Victorian Auditor-General, an independent government watchdog, investigated the cause. He did not mention global warming. He reported that State authorities had not reached any of their targets for reducing forest undergrowth. Class action lawyers are preparing a case against the Local Governments in neighboring New South Wales and Canberra for failing to manage the forests.


The environmental consequence is grievous. The fires are so hot they are destroying the forest, not regenerating it. One scientist estimates it will take native forest outside Canberra 200 years to recover from the last fires. The US forestry industry has declared much of California's forest "sick." The Sierra Nevada range of California is a case in point. After decades of fire suppression, the severe curtailment recently of management of national forests in the range, extended drought and insect infestation, it is estimated there is six billion board feet of dead and dying timber in the range.


Because it is the reserve for the California spotted owl (which was recently declared by authorities as not endangered), environmentalists are calling for the entire Sierra Nevada to be permanently set aside as a "biosphere," or giant park. If no action is taken, most wildfire experts predict that when it burns, everything will be destroyed.


What is common to the forestry experience in the United States and Australia is not that global warming is the cause, but a misguided view, uninformed by science, about what constitutes effective environmental management of forests. The desire to return the forest to a state of wilderness they were never in is creating firebombs that will destroy the very environment they are supposed to protect.


But maybe the desire to blame global warming, rather than misguided intentions, reflects something deeper. After all, the source of human induced emissions of carbon dioxide is industrial activity. For those who believe that industrialization is the basic ill of society, the idea that global warming is the cause of devastating forest fires is much more comforting.


Alan Oxley is a Co-host of Techcentralstation.

TCS Daily Archives