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April 16, 2014

Report urges reduction of wildfire fuel in Sierra Nevada forests

A new report says thinning and controlled burning in Sierra Nevada forests could reduce the chances of devastating blazes such as last year’s Rim fire.

A new report says increased thinning and controlled burning in Sierra Nevada forests could reduce the risk of intense fires by up to 75 percent, saving timber and other resources, as well as taxpayer dollars.

The report, which looked at the Mokelumne River watershed, east of Stockton, comes several months after the Rim fire devastated part of the Tuolumne River watershed to the south.

The findings were endorsed by several government agencies and environmental groups, as well as Sierra Pacific Industries, which has two sawmills in Tuolumne County.

“Recent megafires in California and the West have destroyed lives and property, degraded water quality, damaged wildlife habitat and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars,” said David Edelson, Sierra Nevada project director with the Nature Conservancy, in a news release.

This nonprofit group collaborated on the study with the U.S. Forest Service and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency. The authors used computer modeling to estimate how various fuel treatments would affect future fire behavior in the Mokelumne watershed, the main source for the East Bay.

Supporters say loggers could thin stands that have grown unnaturally dense, in part because of suppression of the low-intensity fires that used to keep the understory open. This could be paired with controlled burning, done when conditions allow, to mimic fires that once were sparked by lightning and American Indians.

People from industry, government and environmental groups already agree on this general idea, though they might differ on the location and volume of logging. New urgency has come from the Rim fire, which burned about a quarter-million acres in the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park and private land.

“Many scientists are predicting an increase in the size and severity of fires due to a changing climate,” said Jim Branham, executive officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. “These fires, such as last year’s Rim fire, degrade wildlife habitat, release massive amounts of greenhouse gases and can result in many other adverse impacts.”

The report said the benefits of fire-resilient forests could outweigh the fuel-reduction costs by as much as 3-to-1.

“Our ongoing goal is to increase the pace and scale of our restoration work, and this study strongly supports that,” said Regional Forester Randy Moore, who oversees all of California’s national forests. “Our current pace of restoration work needs to be accelerated to mitigate threats and disturbances such as wildfires, insects, diseases and climate change impacts.”

More information on the report, the Mokelumne Avoided Cost Analysis, is at www.sierranevada.ca.gov.

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