Unless you've just returned from Mars, you know that there is ahelluva forest fire burning in the Stanislaus National Forest and neighboring Yosemite National Park. More than 4,000 firefights are risking their lives to defend several rural enclaves against walls of flames that are burning so hot that they are making their own weather. Welcome to nature. Welcome to the Rim Fire.
California Gov., Jerry Brown, has declared a state of emergency because the Rim Fire may well disrupt San Francisco's power supply. Simply put, the lights could go out. And if power is lost, the city's water and sewage treatment plants will be lost, too. Here's hoping the Ninth Circuit Court goes dark and the toilets won't flush. More on this delightful thought in a moment, but first some perspective.
As of 8:45 a.m. today [August 28, 2013] the Rim Fire has burned through about 184,000 acres [287square miles] of timber and rangeland, mostly in the Stanislaus. It is thus about one-third the size of two 2002 monstrosities - the Biscuit, a lightning-caused fire that ravaged southern Oregon'sSiskiyou National Forest, and northern Arizona's Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which was actually two fires that became one. The Chediski was set by a hapless camper who was trying to send smoke signals to rescuers, and the Rodeo which was arson-caused. Speculation is that the Rim got its start from an untended campfire.
None of these fires come close to the Great 1910 Fire, a wind-driven firestorm that destroyed three million acres of timber in northern Idaho and western Montana, most of it in 48 hours. Seventy-eight poorly equipped firefighters died, most of them skid row bums recruited off the streets of Spokane, Washington, many without shoes. By contrast, the Rim Fire is being fought by nearly 4,000 well trained and well-equipped men and women aided from above by fixed wing air tankers and at least a dozen twin-rotor helicopters that are costing taxpayers about $20,000 per hour - each.
How much of this fire is actually burning inside Yosemite is not known, but it is close enough to two groves of ancient Sequoias to have prompted the installation of temporary sprinkler systems designed to keep the trees from burning. Good luck with that.
The fire is burning within four miles of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, a 300-foot deep, 2,000-acre impoundment that supplies about 85 percent of San Francisco's municipal water - some 240 million gallons daily - all of it delivered by gravity through a 160-mile-long system of pipes. The source is the Tuolumne River, which is held back at Hetch Hetchy by O'Shaughnessy Dam, a hydroelectric complex that generates about 20 percent of San Francisco's power. Naturally, San Francisco environmentalists want the entire complex removed. They also opposed its development, which began in 1914, eight years after most of San Francisco was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, which started the fire that burned down most of the city, much of it after fire hoses ran dry. HetchHetchy and O'Shaughnessy solved the problem, while providing San Franciscans with electricity and drinking water that is so pure that it need not be filtered. Only six U.S. cities can make this claim. No wonder Gov. Brown is worried that ash falling on the reservoir will pollute the city's pristine tap water. He should also check with health authorities, who will be only too happy to confirm that smoke from forests fires is filled with cancercausing pollutants that also raise hell with people who have heart and respiratory problems.
Two powerhouses at O'Shaughnessy have been shut down. These supply transmission lines that power San Francisco General Hospital and San Francisco International Airport. If you've ever stood beneath one of these lines you know that the electric load they carry is so great that the lines crackle. Should flames from the Rim Fire burn through one of them, the lines themselves will ignite everything they touch. Hence, the well-reasoned decision to shut off the power.
The unspoken truth is that much of the electric grid that serves the 11 western states is at great risk because of the forest fire crisis that Congress refuses to deal with on a meaningful scale. This is because most transmission lines pass through heavily timbered areas that are filled with dead and dying trees that need to be removed before inevitable wildfire strikes.
Also at great risk are the municipal water systems serving ever major metropolitan area in the West, to say nothing of thousands of small communities that rely on nearby forests for clean drinking water. The Forest Service estimates that about 80 percent of the West's households and businesses get their water from streams and rivers that originate in forests.
At least two months remain in the 2013 forest fire season. September is often the worst month. Thus far, 850,000 acres have been blackened. With 11 big fires burning in Idaho, 10 in California, six in Oregon and five in Montana, we will easily surpass one million acres - again. The U.S. Forest Service has already blown through its billion-dollar wildfire budget, prompting agency Chief, TomTidwell, to send collection letters to the governors of 22 states that received Secure Rural Schools funding authorized by Congress. Oregon will lose the most - nearly $4 million - while California will lose $2.2 million, Idaho $1.7 million, Montana $1.3 million and Alaska nearly $1 million.
Can anyone tell me why we who call the rural West "home" are being forced to choose between the only two assets we've ever possessed - our forests and our children? Why is the federal government holding us hostage to its failed forest policies?
Time was when all of the aforementioned states, plus Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming, had robust federal timber sale programs that helped underwrite the cost of schools, roads, rural fire districts, public libraries, bridges, municipal buildings, water impoundments and other economic developments that form the social and cultural fabric for much of the rural West.
To understand the vital importance of federal timber - and the jobs and tax revenues that it generated in the decades following World War II - consider for a moment what would happen if Wall Street suddenly vanished from New York City or the Silicon Valley's high tech businesses suddenly left the Bay Area.This brings me to my not-so-tongue-in-cheek musing about the Ninth Circuit Court going dark and its toilets clogging. No force on earth - not even Mother Nature - has done more damage to the West's forests and its historic timber-based economy. Its assault on science and society is unprecedented in modern history. You need look no further than this court's shameless attacks on the rural West to understand why the Forest Service's timber management program has been neutered. And to see evidence of the impact of its neutering, you need look no further than the ecological collapse that is now so widely visible in western federal forests. By the Forest Service's own estimate, somewhere between 70 and 80 million acres of western timberland require treatment to prevent more fires like Rim, Biscuit, Rodeo-Chediski and "The Beast," a fire burning near Sun Valley, Idaho that sent the summer Hollywood set [no friends of forestry here] scurrying in all directions - in their private jets.
Fundamental to these treatments is thinning - reducing the number of trees per acre - and the reintroduction of controlled burns designed to reduce woody debris accumulations that fuel these conflagrations. But the Ninth Circuit Court has - with an able assist from Congress - created such a legal and regulatory morass that the only people who are benefitting are the lawyers that environmentalists hire to block the Forest Service's every attempt at forest restoration. Why do they do this? Because they can; because Congress in its infinite wisdom has, via the Equal Access to Justice Act, forced taxpayers to pay the fees these lawyers charge - win or lose.
By the late 1980s, the Ninth's abuse of the rural West's timber economy had become so egregious that the late Mark O. Hatfield, who was Oregon's senior U.S. Senator for many years, suggested the time had come to create a Tenth Circuit Court. Hatfield, a Republican who opposed the war in Vietnam, and was one of the Senate's most liberal members, could see the damage the Ninth's justices were willfully inflicting on rural western timber communities and he wanted it stopped. There being no other avenue, he spoke quietly of forming a Tenth Circuit Court that could more equitably represent the interests of rural westerners.
So, do I really want the Ninth Circuit to go dark and do I really want its toilets clogged? Damn right I do. This court needs to be sent packing before it completely destroys the rural West and its great forest.