November 9, 2007

Is policy fueling the fires?

Stacia Glenn, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

SAN BERNARDINO - Southern California wildfires are more likely fueled by fire suppression than by drought or global warming, says a top expert on fire ecology.

That was one of the more surprising tidbits dropped on nearly 100 people Friday at a summit on global warming and drought.

UC Riverside biogeography professor Richard Minnich, keynote speaker for the nine-hour summit at Cal State San Bernardino, said he hopes the crowd left with skepticism that global warming is the main culprit for environmental problems.

Nine environmental experts spoke at the Water Resources Institute's annual conference, which drew dozens of water district managers, area politicians and college students.

Institute Director Susan Lien Longville, who coordinated the event, said the summit focused on global warming and drought because they are the two most "timely issues."

DVDs of the presentations will be released in two weeks and are expected to be used in classrooms.

Environmental experts tackled topics such as how global warming affects the health of local communities, how it affects the state's water supply and flood risk, and wise investments to "drought proof" the area.

But the crowd seemed most riveted by Minnich, who used the recent Slide and Grass Valley fires to drive home his point about the dangers of fire suppression.

Fire suppression - where firefighters beat out a blaze instead of letting the flames run their natural course - has long been the state's policy.

Minnich contends it would be better if "we'd done absolutely nothing over the last 100 years.

"You're defying a physical process that operates in nature," he said. "It's like saying we can't breathe or trying to put a cork in the throat of a volcano. It's insanity."

He argued that forests are often healthier when ground-level fires beat a natural path through the trees and brush, and would sputter out on their own once they reached previous burn spots.

That's not to say that drought doesn't help fuel the flames.

The most extreme drought in 250 years wiped out more trees in 2002 than in the past 100 years combined, Minnich said, including every Jeffrey pine in certain areas of the San Bernardino Mountains.

"The water ran out," he said. "This was a huge event."

Even though this year has had very little rainfall, few trees have perished, Minnich said.