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Think this fire season is bad? 'This isn't the worst of it,' retired US Forest Service chief says

By Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES - Bad news, Californians, but 2020's fire season may not be an aberration.

In fact, Westerners are probably facing years of increasing fire, smoke, death and destruction both in rural towns and suburban foothills unless state government and the rest of the country get on the same page on how to deal with this threat.

At least that's how Tom Harbour, retired fire chief of the U.S. Forest Service, sees it.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Harbour, who led the agency's fire response for 11 years and spent 46 years in firefighting, gave his thoughts on how California and the West have arrived on this fire-filled path and the difficult choices that would have to be made to leave it.

"The broad confluence of factors that you got there in California - the Mediterranean climate, the (dead trees) in the Sierra and then over 2 million properties at risk - shouldn't be a surprise," Harbour said. "It's trite to say ... this isn't the worst of it."

As Gov. Gavin Newsom said recently, and experts have been warning for years, California's annual cycle of natural disasters is a harbinger of life in the United States, with increasingly frequent extreme weather events, Harbour said.


"It's a terrible situation, and I hope this allows us people to really step back and start thinking about solutions," Harbour said. "We need to carefully consider individually, county by county, as a state, as a society, whether or not this kind of situation ... which seems to be happening with increased frequency, is acceptable. I don't believe it is."

For starters, the government can manage its forests better through more prescribed fires and commercial timber harvesting, Harbour said. When we don't pay the costs to manage wild land up front, residents, businesses and governments end up paying billions on the back end through lost income, insurance claims and recovery funds when monster fires pass through.

"What kind of fire do you want?" Harbour asked rhetorically. "Because you can't exclude fire in these ecosytems, and you can't 'one more firefighter' your way out of these."

The last few years of extreme fire underscore the need for a new approach, Harbour said. About 19 million of California's 33 million acres of forest, or 57%, is federal. Less than 1 million acres, or 3%, is owned by the state. The rest is a mix of private and local government land owners.


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