Fires cook up red herrings

There is nothing like a high-profile tragedy to fuel political agendas. Take forest management and the debate on the versions of the so-called Healthy Forests Initiative as promoted by the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Bush administration. All three plans call for the timber industry to clear national forests of fuel build-up caused by years of unnatural fire protection. As a reward, the industry would be allowed to harvest large, healthy trees, many of which until now have been off limits.

As the fires in Southern California raged last month, politicians wasted no time in holding them up as evidence that it is time to implement the plans. Rep. John Doolittle, R-Rocklin, blamed “over-zealous environmentalism” for the “600,000 acres of Southern California forests that have been reduced to mere kindling.” Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico, e-mailed to the press a FOX News story quoting the congressman while also blaming environmentalists for the devastating and deadly conflagrations.

But there is a disconnect here. Most of the fires were on private, not federal, lands and for the most part were fueled by chaparral, brush and grasslands, not by the overgrown forest floors targeted by the management plans. It’s true that many of the trees that burned in San Diego County were weakened by a bark beetle infestation. It is also true that earlier this year Gov. Davis asked the Bush administration’s Federal Emergency Management Administration for funds to remove those trees. The request was denied.

Let’s be careful where we place blame for a catastrophe that caused 20 deaths, 3,334 lost homes, 750,000 scorched acres and $12 billion in costs.