As fires erupt across the state, a group headed by Mendocino County firefighters has launched a countywide ballot initiative effort aimed at reducing fire danger by limiting a forest management practice that poisons unwanted trees and leaves them to die and decompose in forests.
The practice adds fuel to a dangerously flammable situation in forests that are tinder-dry after four years of drought, critics of the practice say.
“Many citizens, including firefighters, believe that the practice of intentionally killed and left standing trees presents an extreme fire hazard, impedes early rapid suppression of fires, and poses a life safety risk to firefighters and endangers the public health and safety of rural residents,” the proposed initiative states.
Such operations are aimed at restoring overlogged forests to their original conifer-dominated conditions by clearing out competing hardwood trees, like tanoaks. But critics say the method is being overused and are seeking restrictions.
The proposed initiative declares that trees taller than 5 meters — a little more than 16 feet — that are poisoned and left standing for more than 90 days are a nuisance. The initiative also would require kilometer (or about 3,200-foot) setbacks from homes, roads, rivers and utility poles when undertaking so-called “hack and squirt” operations. It would make timber companies liable for any damage that occurs in violation of the setbacks.
“We’re using public funds to fight fires on private timberland,” said Ted Williams, chief of the Albion Little River Fire Protection District, who has led the charge to regulate the practice. “It’s about industry accountability,” he said.
Williams’ 44-square-mile coastal fire district includes and is surrounded by commercial timberland, much of it belonging to Mendocino Redwood Co., which owns more than 10 percent of the county’s land mass and the bulk of the forestland where vast swaths of poisoned, dead trees now stand.
Mike Jani, Mendocino Redwood’s president and chief forester, said Wednesday the company has not taken a position on the proposed initiative but questioned its necessity. He noted the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors earlier this year asked that stakeholders and experts in the field meet and study the issue.
He previously has denied that the practice of leaving dead trees standing is a safety issue. The trees are somewhat more flammable for a year or two but become less so over time and eventually can actually reduce fire danger, he said.
The forest practice has been used for decades. But Williams and others say its use has escalated in recent years with an estimated 1 million trees being killed each year as timber corporations try to maximize their profits, exposing rural residents and firefighters to increased danger in the process.
This is the second attempt this year to reduce that perceived danger.
Williams in April asked the county Board of Supervisors to consider regulating such operations but it failed to garner sufficient support. Supervisor Dan Hamburg suggested a voluntary six-month moratorium on the practice while the issue was studied, but it too lacked support. He said the initiative process is the logical next move.
The proposed initiative so far has a ballot title and summary. Williams expects a signature petition to be ready for circulation next week. Petitioners will have 180 days to gather 2,502 valid signatures from registered voters to place the initiative on the June 2016 ballot.