Environmental group questions dozers use to fight wildfires

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SAN FRANCISCO — Bulldozer drivers cut 305 miles of fire lines through scenic forest land last year in a desperate bid to stop a massive wildfire’s advance on a Northern California city; an effort an environmentalist group said Thursday was largely ineffective.

The Oregon-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, & Ecology organization released a report detailing bulldozer use during the July wildfire that killed eight people and destroyed 1,000 homes in and around Redding. One dozer driver died and another was seriously hurt.

The report concluded that flying embers driving the fire rendered almost useless the bulldozers’ cutting of “catlines” to clear trees and vegetation in its path.

“Numerous catlines were carved into the hills and ridgelines north, south and west of the city trying to stop the spread of the fire, but almost all of them were breached by flying embers that were lofted in hot, dry, fast-moving winds that spread flames over the catlines,” the report said. “Months after the wildfire was over, the damage left behind by the vast network of catlines is now revealing itself.”

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is in charge of fighting most of the state’s wildfires and led the firefighting effort in July. Cal Fire spokesman Scott Mclean didn’t respond to phone and email requests for comment.

Cal Fire routinely sends in “suppression repair” crews behind the bulldozers almost as soon as the fire moves through and the ground cools off. Those crews use an array of heavy equipment, including dozers, to repair damage caused creating the catlines.

They replace barbed-wire cattle fences, gates and crushed culverts; smooth out dirt roads torn apart by heavy equipment; flatten the berms created by bulldozers and put hiking trails back in shape.

When necessary, they work with Native American tribes to repair damage to archaeological sites or clean the pink liquid that suppresses flames out of waterways.

But the environmental group’s report says those repair efforts aren’t enough to fix most of the damage, including the creation of “ghost roads” that scar pristine forests and remain for years.

“Catlines displace soils and destabilize slopes, denude native vegetation and help spread flammable invasive weeds, degrade water quality and closedcanopy forest habitat, destroy Native American artifacts and heritage sites, and despoil the scenery of fire affected wildlands,” the report concluded.

The nonprofit group, which gets funding from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and other environmental organizations, advocates ending “warfare on wildfires” by ecologically managing them.

The group called on firefighters to keep the bulldozers in the garage when hot and heavy winds are fueling wildfires, especially in remote areas where few people live.

“Using ‘big iron’ bulldozers can cut a lot of fireline quickly and brutally, and in the right places and conditions these catlines can stop wildfire spread,” the report said. “But during extreme conditions that drive large wildfires like the Carr Fire--conditions that are becoming more frequent due to climate change--catlines are becoming increasingly ineffective in stopping wildfire spread.”

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