Likening the damage in Redding from the Carr Fire to destruction he has seen in war-torn Iraq, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said Sunday he plans to seek changes in federal forest policy to prevent catastrophic wildfires.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’ve seen a lot of fires,” Zinke said while surveying high voltage electrical transmission towers that were blown over by 160 mph winds created by the Carr Fire.
“As a former (Navy) SEAL that was a deputy commander and acting commander in Iraq, this is on par with anything I’ve seen, just the devastation,” Zinke said.
Zinke was in Redding on Sunday to see first-hand some of the damage caused by the Carr Fire, especially destruction on lands managed by the Department of the Interior, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
His stops included visiting Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and the area where the fire toppled giant electrical transmission towers managed by the Western Area Power Administration.
Those lines, which have been repaired, deliver power to about 1 million homes in the Silicon Valley, said Don Bader, area manager for the bureau of reclamation.
Three of the towers on the west side of Redding were blown over by wind speeds comparable to that of tornadoes, National Weather Service officials say.
He also made some unplanned stops in the Lake Keswick Estates area in west Redding, where numerous homes were destroyed by the fire, visiting with a few families going through the rubble where their homes once stood.
Zinke’s motorcade stopped in front of Bryan and Amber Marty’s home, where he walked up their driveway to meet them and talk with them.
Bryan Marty said he was impressed Zinke took the time to talk with him.
“I actually think it’s wonderful. It’s amazing that he takes his time to talk with us, you know,” Bryan Marty said.
He also stopped to talk with residents in Keswick, a tiny historic community tucked in the hills west of Redding. Except for two homes, every building in Keswick was destroyed when the fire ripped through on its way to Redding.
The devastation from the fire — 1,599 structures burned on 191,211 acres — can be blamed on bad forest management that has allowed public forests to become too thick and overgrown, Zinke said.
“The density of our forests is too high, the fuel load’s too great,” Zinke said. “When you cut off public access, when you don’t have roads, when it’s difficult to put firebreaks in, it comes (with) a consequence — and the fuel loads are too great.”
At Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, which remains closed while crews work to restore water, power, sewage and phone service after the Carr Fire burned through the recreation area, Zinke said the park would reopen soon.
But he said the cost of fighting fires currently eats up too much of the Interior Department budget. He estimated the federal government will spend about $2.5 billion fighting wildland fires this year.
If the forests are managed better by thinning, through prescribed burns and cutting trees and brush, then fires don’t burn as hot and cause as much destruction, he said.
He is seeking changes in federal policy that would allow thinning and salvage logging to happen faster after fires. He wants to see the environmental review process, which now sometimes takes up to two years before salvage logging can go forward, shortened so work can proceed faster.
If trees aren’t logged for two years they lose their commercial value as lumber and create a fire hazard in the forest, he said.
“If we salvage the timber that is burned that will be helpful, but we got to get to it in the first couple years, otherwise the timber has no value and then I’m paying people to take it out,” Zinke said.
Getting an exemption to shorten environmental reviews on large fires such as the Carr Fire would require congressional approval, though, Zinke said.
U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who joined Zinke on the tour, agreed with the interior secretary about the need to better manage forests and speed up salvage logging after fires.
“It really is, at the bottom line, about fuels management,” Lamalfa said.
“In this beautiful place we have, normally we should be welcoming people to be recreating rather than evacuating,” LaMalfa said.
Zinke, who will be in Redding again Monday, said he and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue will be rolling out a proposal to streamline environmental review.