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Last month's deadly Camp Fire could be a turning point in the debate over how to manage Western forests. Groups that fought for decades over logging may finally be getting together to figure out what needs to be done to prevent or at least mitigate the devastation of future mega-fires. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: One month after the most destructive wildfire in America in more than a century, I'm in a chopper flying over neighborhoods and commercial districts that are completely decimated, rubble amidst the tall, blackened pines.
DAN TOMASCHESKI: Think maybe bear around to your left down there, get just a little lower.
SIEGLER: Outside the town of Paradise, tucked into the rugged canyons, there are illegal pot plantations exposed and charred. A few homes on ridgetops here or there are spared. But overall, the scale of the devastation is just alarming.
TOMASCHESKI: ...To the right. But see how hot that burned. There's nothing left there.
SIEGLER: I'm flying with Dan Tomascheski. He's vice president and head forester for Sierra Pacific Industries. It's the big timber company in northern California. He's assessing the damage to his company's lands, about 10,000 acres burned, mostly east into the mountains above Paradise.
TOMASCHESKI: It took the whole stand. So we're going to have to - we'll get - have to get there quickly and harvest what's big enough to make lumber.
SIEGLER: There's a short window to salvage these trees we're buzzing over before they're ruined by bugs or rot. Deeper in the mountains now, our pilot lands in a clearing near the old sawmill town of Stirling City. From here, we trade the chopper for a pickup and begin driving through an eerily charred landscape.
TOMASCHESKI: Boy, it's whacked, huh?
UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE: Is it?
TOMASCHESKI: Yeah, it's really burned.
SIEGLER: Tomascheski is riding shotgun with one of his employees.
TOMASCHESKI: The stuff we planted in 2008, it's toast. You know, it's...
SIEGLER: Every so often we pass dense forest that didn't burn, and it's astounding how thick the brush and small trees are. In forests like this, it's thought that there are 10 times as many trees as is natural.
TOMASCHESKI: And this is a lot of what Paradise looked like prior.
UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE: Yeah. Yeah, just like this.
TOMASCHESKI: You know, big tree canopy. And, you know, people love the trees. And you love the privacy, and they're beautiful. But they can be a liability.
SIEGLER: All this undergrowth, dried out from hotter and longer summers and a history of suppressing wildfires, is a big reason why we're now seeing these deadly mega-fires. Tomascheski stops to point out a small clearing in the forest where some big trees survived the fire. This past summer, Sierra Pacific thinned out that underbrush to create a fuel break. It stopped the Camp Fire for a bit and allowed firefighters to make a stand here.
TOMASCHESKI: We don't think we're being naive in that this is a panacea for every condition every time. But this really is a start, and it will really give us a leg up in trying to keep these things small.
SIEGLER: Well, this is the kind of work that foresters say needs to be done now to keep wildfires smaller on millions of acres of private and public land across the West.
UNIDENTIFIED FIRE OFFICIAL: ...That we're all in this together. And we'll make it.
SIEGLER: We're all in this together is the theme at an emotional fire council meeting near Paradise. Fire officials in this room are already eyeing the critical forest work that lies ahead. Jim Broshears is head of emergency operations in Paradise.
JIM BROSHEARS: Yeah. Every one of the fires - Thomas, Tubbs, Carr and, of course, Camp - have all kind of been leading us down the same direction of we have to rethink the past.
SIEGLER: Broshears' home was one of only a few spared in Paradise, which he credits to brush-clearing and other mitigation work he had done. But he says this can't just be done in and around fire-prone towns anymore. We've got to go way out into the forests, do selective thinning, brush-clearing, planned burns.
BROSHEARS: There's an agreement now that we have overstocked forests that are not resilient to bugs, drought, disease and fire.
SIEGLER: Broshears and others here on the ground are quick to say what's really holding up this forest work is funding, not the decades-old environmental battles over logging, what people here call the timber wars. North of Paradise, in the town of Mount Shasta, conservationist Arielle Halpern says there's a realization now that all the finger-pointing and blaming wasn't constructive.
ARIELLE HALPERN: I think there are a lot of discussions that need to happen. And everybody could use some education. I say this for myself as well.
SIEGLER: Halpern is organizing her neighbors, from hippies to ranchers, into community groups doing prescribed burning.
HALPERN: And to be honest, we do have common goals. We all like to have safe homes and families and communities. I don't think that - you know, you talk to an environmentalist on the far left and somebody on the far right, and I bet that they could agree with that statement.
SIEGLER: Back in the woods near the old sawmill town of Stirling City, Dan Tomascheski says his industry is now talking and compromising with groups they might not have even met with a decade ago.
TOMASCHESKI: You know, it takes time. You know, you go to more meetings than you'd like to go. But you need to build a consensus.
SIEGLER: And Tomascheski sees an upside amid all this tragedy. There is potential for a boom in rural forest jobs again. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Stirling City, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILLENNIUM JAZZ MUSIC FEAT. BONES THE BEAT HEAD'S "SOBER")
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