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Zinke, Perdue tour fire-ravaged Northern California

U.S. Interior and Agriculture secretaries view fire damage from Carr Fire, meet with local officials. Zinke says better forest management is needed to reduce wildfires.

Better management of the West’s overgrown forests would reduce the risk and severity of wildfires, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said early today during a two-day tour of devastation caused by Northern California’s Carr Fire.

Mechanically removing underbrush and dead and dying trees, reopening closed roads to create fire breaks, conducting controlled burns and allowing grazing in selected areas are among the actions that could improve forests’ condition, he says.

“We have to remove the dead and dying trees and restore health to our forests,” Zinke told KRCR-TV in Redding, Calif., this morning.

“This is unacceptable,” he said of the fires. “Every year Californians are not going out and enjoying public lands because access has been removed. So rather than hiking and rafting … they’re evacuating their homes and having to breathe unhealthy air. We can do better.”

Related: Is climate change being falsely accused of sparking California conflagrations?

Zinke also says he agreed with President Donald Trump’s tweet last week asserting that environmental laws that require a “massive amount of readily available water” to be flushed into the Pacific Ocean to help fish have worsened California’s wildfires.

Water would help farmers

“California has enough water, but where the water is going is the issue,” Zinke told the ABC affiliate. He added that more water availability would help farmers, noting that “two-thirds of America’s groceries come out of the Central Valley.”

Zinke and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue are in Redding today to meet with local officials and fire crews. Zinke arrived in the area on Sunday, touring damaged areas of the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and near Keswick, Calif., with Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman and meeting affected residents.

Trump last week approved a major disaster declaration for Shasta County, which is being scorched by three significant wildfires, according to state and federal fire agencies:

  • The Carr Fire, which has burned 202,976 acres in Shasta and Trinity counties, killed eight people and destroyed over 1,000 homes.

  • The Hirz Fire, which has charred nearly 4,000 acres in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and is only 5 percent contained.

  • The Hat Fire, which has burned 1,900 acres in the county’s northeastern corner.

Thousands of firefighters are also battling other blazes around the state, including two fires that make up the Mendocino Complex, which has become the largest recorded in state history at about 345,000 acres combined, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Damage to farmland

The fires have caused some damage to vineyards and pear orchards in Lake County and scorched timber and rangeland in Mendocino County, and some livestock remains unaccounted for, reports the California Farm Bureau Federation. Growers have also voiced concerns that thick smoke that shrouds much of the state’s farmland may taint wine grapes and delay crop development just before harvest.

More than 7,000 U.S. Forest Service firefighters are battling the Carr Fire and other blazes across the country. On Twitter, Zinke posted photos of a leveled-out neighborhood where several federal employees live and credited them for continuing to “come to work to fight fires, restore power and repair damaged facilities.”

“I have no words that describe the loss and devastation experienced by the community,” Zinke tweeted. “I’ve been to a lot of fires and this is just something else. We are here for you.”

In local media interviews, Zinke said the devastation he saw from the Carr Fire was similar to what he witnessed as a Navy SEAL commander in Iraq. In part, he blames “radical groups” that “don’t want to see one tree come out of the forest” for lawsuits that have limited access to forest lands.

As a result, the density of under-growth has created an inability to harvest trees under sustainable conditions, he told KRCR. The U.S. is importing lumber while timber suitable for harvest “is rotting on the forest floor,” he says.

Bipartisan bill

He noted there’s bipartisan support for a bill by Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., to use fee revenue from the development of oil, natural gas, wind and solar energy on public lands to better maintain national parks. The two are the top Republican and Democrat, respectively, on the House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee.

The visit to Redding by Zinke and Perdue comes after Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen traveled to Northern California on Aug. 9 and 10 to address the ongoing wildfires. She met with Gov. Jerry Brown and other state and local officials and participated in a ground survey of areas affected by the Carr Fire, according to an agency news release.

During her trip, she touted the importance of individual preparedness, fire safety and prevention and vowed to support the state during what is looking to be a long and challenging fire season, according to the release.

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