Wildfires: A Silent Source of Carbon Emissions

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Without a doubt, 2018 will go down as one of the deadliest wildfire years in history, particularly in California. The Camp fire outside of Sacramento and the Woolsey fire in Malibu not only resulted in the loss of 14,000 structures, but led to 88 tragic deaths. The fire resulted in corporate casualties, as well.

Just yesterday, Pacific Gas and Electric announced to its employees its intention to file for bankruptcy protection in light of the $30 billion in projected liability claims it will have due to its perceived negligence. Given the catastrophic personal and financial toll that these two fires inflicted on the lives of so many, it is understandable that the carbon emitted from the Camp and Woolsey fires would go underreported or even unnoticed. Yet, the undeniable fact is that when considering the total amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emitted each year, we must take into account the millions of tons of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by these cataclysmic environmental events. Unfortunately, a substantial number, if not a majority, of these wildfires start on federal forestlands, illustrating the dire need for federal land managers to be given the regulatory tools they need to make events like the Camp and Woolsey fires and the carbon they emit less frequent.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the 2018 California Wildfire season produced 68 million tons in carbon emissions. This tonnage is equivalent to the same amount emitted by the electric utility sector to serve the annual power needs of the whole state. Wildfires and the amount of carbon they emit, of course, are not a new phenomenon in the western United States. When one of the first Spanish explorers, Juan Cabrillo, made port in San Francisco Bay in 1542 during the height of the Santa Ana fire season he promptly referred to it as “The Bay of Smoke.” The aptly titled “Big Burn” of 1910 burned 3 million acres across Montana and Idaho, destroyed seven towns, and killed 87 people over a much more sparsely populated area than represented by the Camp or Woolsey fires.

In the aftermath of this devastating fire in 1910, the U.S. Forest Service, which was still in its infancy, embarked upon a well-intentioned policy of strict wildfire suppression. This policy had the unintended impact of creating a buildup of fuels on the forest floor, which would normally be consumed by ground hugging low-intensity fires. With excess fuel available, new fires would consume the “ladder” fuels, leading to catastrophic canopy wildfires that became all too common in contemporary times throughout the West.

More than half a century of forest suppression created a tinderbox for wildfires. The spate of environmental laws in the 1960s and 1970s – like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act – further exacerbated the implementation of sensible forest management policies to a point where timber harvesting of even the smallest diameter trees became a thing of the past. The result? A proliferation of federal forest stands where 300 trees compete for water in areas with enough water to support 80.

While bipartisan acts of Congress like the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 have sought to streamline the regulatory and judicial impediments the Forest Service and other federal land management agencies encounter in mitigating catastrophic wildfire, much more needs to be done, not only to prevent the devastating loss of life resulting from the Camp and Woolsey fires, but to reduce the carbon emissions from these fires. After all, many states have tasked the electric sector and other industries with meeting carbon emission reduction goals. If we’re serious about cutting carbon emissions, one of the first steps should be to properly manage federal lands and reduce wildfires.