Articles of Interest on Fire

Here are three articles that I came across recently that should be of interest to most of us:

1) April 7-10 – Bend, Or. – Open to the Public but registration is required – “In what organizers have dubbed a “Week of Fire,” forest scientists and fire managers will meet in Bend April 7-10 to discuss the latest research on fire ecology and its implications for forest management.” See Here for more info.

2) “Fire ecologists say it will take decades for forests to recover from the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park, given the extent of the high-severity burn. Now they’re adding another concern to that list: California’s dry weather.” See Here for more info. Especially, note the first photo and the extremely erodible scorched soils shown and the inference that global warming / drought only increases the need for sound forest management to compensate.

3) Can California Burn its Way Out of its Wildfire Problem? Some interesting quotes include:
a) “People who fight and study fire generally agree that one of the best tools for preventing massive wildfires is prescribed burning: intentionally setting smaller fires before the big ones hit. But there are major challenges to fighting fire with fire.”
b) “In California alone, about 15 million acres of forest are in need of some kind of treatment.
“We’re in a huge deficit,” says Scott Stephens, a fire scientist at University of California, Berkeley. Before the year 1800, he says, 4.5 million acres burned in California every year. Fires started either by Native Americans or by lightning were generally smaller and less intense, but much more frequent. Many areas burned every ten years or so. But because of aggressive fire suppression policies that managers followed for decades, many places haven’t burned in a century or more. Some forests are so overgrown, they have ten times the number of trees as they had historically. That’s the difference between running through the trees, arms outstretched, maybe with a couple of friends by your side, and not being able to crawl through. Forests like these are more susceptible to giant wildfires, because there’s more fuel to burn and it burns hotter. “We’re carrying these forests that are incredibly vulnerable forward into climate change,” says Stephens. “It’s a disaster really.” Because, he explains, California’s changing climate will make the fire season longer, and the prescribed-burn season shorter.”
c) ““Where I started my division assignment on the Rim Fire, was in areas where the Forest Service had recently completed some prescribed burns,” says Tom Garcia, the fire manager at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. “And we were able to stall that fire out in that particular area and buy some decision space and some time.” With that extra time, Garcia says, they were able to get ahead of the fire, and save some nearby homes.”

Item C-6 is an item that I have repeatedly tried to explain to many on this site to no avail – Hopefully this will help some to see the need for fuels reduction and provide but one more example of how sound forest management can bring even a catastrophic fire to the ground and thereby reduce the extent of a catastrophic fire and by logical deduction and many studies also keep some fires small so that they can be controlled quickly as soon as there is danger that they could explode into a catastrophic fire.

15 Comments

  1. And, here’s a reminder of the pre-fire conditions, where some areas of the early 70’s wildfire were “left to recover on their own”.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@38.0227621,-119.9341259,898m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

    As per the burn intensity map, these “preserved” brushfields burned at moderate intensity, while the recently-thinned plantations burned at low intensity. The areas that burned at the highest intensities were “protected” wildlife PACs, for owls and goshawks.

    You can bet that Chad Hanson will be filing suit to stop the salvage efforts, renewing the mistakes made 40 years ago. He is ignoring the fact that tens of thousands of acres of perfect BBW habitat will be “protected” within the Yosemite. I’m guessing that he has a big new mortgage on his new residence in southern California to pay for, with court winnings. I am very sure that the Plumas and other northern California Forests are happy that he has moved away. (I wonder if he’s going to target 4FRI.)

    • Dr. Hanson lives in a rental in southern California and the John Muir Project hasn’t filed a new timber sale lawsuit in 3 or 4 years. But, hey, such facts aren’t quite as entertaining as Larry’s well known, quasi creepy, fascination with Dr. Hanson.

      Here’s a picture I took of Dr. Hanson a few weeks ago near the border of last summer’s Mountain Fire in the San Jacinto Mountains. Beautiful area for sure. Lots of big trees (Jeffery pine, sugar pine, white fir…even the lodgepole pine) and enormous squirrels.

      • Even in this small slice of that forest, you can see that this area has been allowed to become “fire un-adapted”. Surely, California Indians, in the past, exercised their burning expertise to keep their forests thinned, and fuel loadings minimal. The San Bernardino NF has not had a mill to send logs to since the early 90’s, and 20 years of unabated growth, tree mortality and tragedy has not convinced some people of the need for active management.

        Here is a wider view of their overstocked unmanaged forests. https://www.google.com/maps/@33.7737465,-116.6871653,237m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en You can still see some of the snags, leftover from the bark beetle bloom of 13 years ago. The rest of the dead trees have fallen over but, they are all still there, waiting for the next inevitable spark (natural or man-caused), to start the next firestorm.

        The facts are that Hanson has not changed his mind about ending all timber sales, on both public lands, as well as on private lands. This also includes hazard tree projects, where he feels that if a road is not maintained for regular passenger vehicles, it is not worthy of being made safe. Yes, dead trees do fall on people and kill them. There are two local (to me) examples of people dying from trees falling on them. Another example of “whatever happens”. He also insists that hazard trees cut along roads should be left in place, and not made into boards. I am totally expecting that Hanson will sue to stop the cutting of smaller dead and dying trees within the Rim Fire. The only reason he hasn’t sued recently is that California hasn’t had large wildfires in previous summers, before 2013. I’d bet a 12-pack of Heineken that he will sue, against Rim Fire salvage projects.

        That being said, I’m wondering if there will be salvage from the Mountain Fire. Without even looking at the burned area, I’m thinking that only hazard trees will be cut down there. The terrain doesn’t lend itself to tractor logging and there isn’t enough volume to justify helicopter logging. Yes, I have worked on salvage projects on the San Bernardino NF, including an area adjacent to the Mountain Fire. Yes, there ARE examples of how careful logging has protected homes. Just for information, the nearest lumber mill is 6 hours away, one way. With fuel costs so high, I don’t think that salvage logging is economically feasible, using a timber sale. Now, they might be able to sell firewood but, that was looked into when I worked there, in 2001, and no one stepped up. Both salvage projects I worked on in the San Berdoo ended up looking very good, due to having excellent loggers.

        Yes, I AM fascinated that he can be so anti-human, Matt.

  2. The dominance of ponderosa pine and bearclover in the Sierra Nevada shows that Indian burning was extremely successful and effective in reducing fuels, making forests safe and producing long-lived forests, perfect for endangered species like goshawks and owls. The Rim Fire area shows how difficult it is to restore such forests to their former splendor.

    Yes, it is clear to me that the Forest Service cannot accomplish any significant level of prescribed burning, due to many issues that aren’t easily solved. One of those major issues is the fact that they are afraid of lighting them with all the private lands and homes around. The liability issue stops them in their tracks, in areas near homes. I’ve seen how things can get out of hand in short order. In Yosemite, within an hour of lighting a burn, the fire was off to the races, turning a 95 acre prescribed fire into a firestorm costing over 17 million dollars (of course, not including much damage to private structures). Another example I saw was when a burn was ignited in bearclover at the bottom of a short, but steep slope. The fire, while small, burned intensely, nearly jumping a main road, into a densely populated area of homes. As long as firefighters continue to make the same dumb mistakes, prescribed burns will be fraught with danger and extreme liability. Currently, it seems that the Forest Service is afraid to use prescribed fire as a main tool for reducing fuels, other than using Let-Burn fires, in the middle of fire season. Money could be better spent, and resources could be better used if broadcast burning, including heli-torches, were used in the off-season, despite marginal burning conditions. The fire folks seem to want to burn the most acres with the least amounts of money but, they don’t want to do what it will take to accomplish that goal. Simply put, 400 acres of prescribed fire per Ranger District, per year isn’t going to do it.

  3. So, it is OK for Native Americans of the past to burn forested areas, but not for current residents to do so. What is wrong with that picture? We cheer the burning that peoples of the past did, while scrutinize what current peoples want to do to manage these areas. Seems like a double standard to me.

    I want to know what these forests were like before man of any kind started ‘managing’ them for himself.

    • Since they were so dedicated to regularly burning their local lands, for their prosperity, safety and survival, impacts from those fires were quite minimal. Ponderosa pines were perfectly adapted to surviving those cool burns, and food sources were much more abundant in those burned areas. With thousands of years of experience, their practices were quite effective. In fact, you can still see their effects today. The problem with today is that people don’t like smoke, where they live. And they don’t like escaped burns, either. There is nothing wrong with modern people doing prescribed burns, from my point of view. In fact, the forest across the street from me needs to be broadcast burned, to reduce those flashy fuels, like bearclover.

      Nobody knows what those forests looked like, before man came across the land bridge. However, I can imagine larger and more intense wildfires, without man around to manage the excess fuels. Lightning, alone, cannot supply the amount of “natural ignitions” that would be needed to mitigate the wildfire dangers to us current residents. I can also imagine fewer large trees, more bark beetles and dense thickets of smaller trees.

      The people who want a “human-less forest” subscribe to a “whatever happens” policy, ignoring every bad impact on humans who live there (and aren’t going anywhere else, anytime soon). This is sheer ignorance of human reality.

      Of course, not every stand needs the same treatments, and that is why we, as good stewards of the forests, must use site-specific science to reach a desired condition, instead of letting “whatever” take its course. We can create forests that survive droughts, bark beetles and catastrophic wildfires.

    • Kat, it’s not a double standard — it’s pure hypocrisy.
      And you probably will never ever have that chance to know because it never happened. Man has been torching (that’s management) for human benefit ever since the first land-bridge Indians saw the fat game in recently-burned areas snarfing on thick fodder. That was thousands and thousands of years ago.
      Indians are a darn smart predator, and quickly assimilated that knowledge.
      There’s a growing pile of research that is finding deliberate human manipulation via fire is a major reason that the species we find today are where they are. The Indians burned to facilitate hunting and gathering of the products they wanted from the landscape, and they did so wherever practicable — emphasis on practicable. They even burned to mess up their enemies, again, no surprise there. And yep, they even burned in self-defense — burn now to keep from being immolated later.
      Today, Indians use fire in combination with mechanized forestry on their lands. Again, they do things that make sense in the context of their needs. They’ll leave burned areas that don’t pencil out for salvage, but mow every last stick that cashes out and then aggressively replant. They burn after harvests in order to lay the ground for prescribed burns in a regular program….and if an induced fire gets away, no biggie, just salvage and try again.
      Combining fire with programmatic timber harvest is pretty darn effective stuff, but too many in the environmental movement are great white father elitist in their mindset and will never figure out how wrong they are.

    • Kat

      To echo and summarize some of the other comments, the big problem now versus the past is human population density. Controlled burns are not what the Native Americans of the past did. All that they had to do was make sure that their people were in a nice clearing which was upwind and downhill from what they wanted to burn. Control wasn’t a requirement. It is now. One can assume that mistakes weren’t generally a problem back then. Mistakes in present times have much greater impact. Controlled burns aren’t perfect but they are more preferable to the consequences of catastrophic fires resulting from overly dense stands and the accompanying fuel build up.

      • Gil:

        You are minimizing the demonstrated skills of Indian burners. To say “All that they had to do was make sure that their people were in a nice clearing which was upwind” is nonsense. Larry and Dave listed several of the reasons Indians burned, and all required varying levels of skill and practice. Your statement doesn’t make sense in that there was a LOT more to do other than “make sure that their people” were upwind and safe when Fire Man did his thing. Fire is a daily thing, and Indians were experts at starting and maintaining fires because they dealt with them on a daily basis from the time they were born. The same goes for fuels, gathering fuels, and storing fuels. Mistakes are always a problem, then and now. It’s a great learning mechanism.

        During my years as a reforestation contractor, my crews broadcast burned over 18,000 acres, often with helicopter ignition. We also prepared the areas for burning by slashing fuels, “treating” stumps, and building fire trails. Sometimes helicopters sprayed desiccants or weed killers on the north slopes or other problematic areas. These burns were mostly in the Coast Range, with property lines sometimes (“a lot of times”) bisecting steep hillsides, creeks, roadways, and/or other potentially problematic areas. We never had a single slop-over or out-of-control situation in all of those years, or in any of those acres. The keys are proper fuel treatment (tonnage, type, and distribution), timing of ignition (weather, time of day), and method of ignition (“strategy”). If each of these is properly taken care of, prescribed fires are almost always safe and effective. But sometimes mistakes or accidents happen, which can teach us a lesson. Just like the Indians.

        • Bob Z

          Sorry to hit your hot button. I didn’t minimize “the demonstrated skills of Indian burners”. My intentions were only to demonstrate the bare minimums required for the past in terms of a low density human population as opposed to the bare minimums in today’s high human population densities. Do you disagree that Native Americans faced less repercussions than today when burns didn’t go as planned? Do you disagree that when things didn’t go as planned, Native Americans could let fires burn until they burned out naturally more than we can today? That is the message that I was trying to convey. I hope this clears up any concerns about my intentions.

          As to your burning record, it is very commendable. I am well aware of the “The Keys” but my observations in the south are that the inexact nature of weather forecasting is a greater problem than mistakes and accidents.

          • Gil:

            Yep, condescending remarks about Indian burning practices and results are definitely one of my “hot buttons.” And what do you mean, exactly, by “low density human populations”? Are you familiar with Cahokia or Mesa Verde? And if your intentions were to show the “bare minimums”, why did you pick Indians instead of Weyerhaeuser foresters, for example? Whoever the authoritarian was that you imagine sending the lesser members of the group (i.e., not bright or to be trusted with fire) “upwind” and “downhill” to “a nice clearing” certainly was NOT “demonstrating bare minimums” in broadcast burning. I doubt anyone over three years old needed to be told what to do when someone was starting a fire for whatever reason.

            In Oregon our saying is “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes for something else.” On the coast we could change the weather just by changing the side of the hill we were on or by changing altitude. When the State became involved about 30 or 40 years ago in controlling ignition times based on weather reports, broadcast burning logged lands in western Oregon mostly ground to a halt due to all of the extra expense and unnecessary delays. I think working on flatlands may be more difficult because of convection problems. I know that grass seed farmers in the Willamette Valley seemed to have more smoke intrusion problems than we did in the woods, partly having to do with a much larger population base that is affected on those occasions.

  4. Kat:

    Prehuman forests happened at different times in different areas of different continents. As soon as people entered a forested environment and fire became used on a daily basis, forests immediately changed trajectories so far as forest structure and species composition are concerned and began heading toward the modern forests you see today, or that are documented in historical records.

    It seems reasonable to assume that what Larry says is correct, in that prehuman forests in areas subjected to lightning storms or volcanic eruptions were shaped in large part by occasional catastrophic-scale wildfires. Local weather conditions and animal species during those times helped further determine plant species composition: elephants can create and maintain grasslands and scrublands; pine beetles and other bugs can quickly alter tree species’ health and populations; trees need a minimum of about 18″ or so of water a year to survive and grow, the rough line between forests and deserts; many of today’s northern forests were covered by glaciers 15,000 years ago, and having so much of the earth’s water locked up in ice caused many areas of unglaciated land to become too arid to grow forests.

    In most glaciated areas, as the ice receded it is likely that human footprints preceded the historical forests that followed the melting glaciers northward and into higher elevations. It is interesting to speculate on what forests might look like today if people had never learned to make fire, but they did, so here we are.

    • Bob has some very compelling and multi-sourced evidence regarding the scale and intensity of that expert burning activity, in Oregon. Skeptics like to say that American Indians didn’t have the skills, intelligence and wherewithal to have much effect on pre-European landscapes. I have seen vast acreages beautiful, open stands of majestic ancient pines, with very little understory, and a thick carpet of bearclover. These expert Indians knew how to start lighting fires at the top of the slopes, working their way back down, to achieve quick and cool burns, without losing their cherished “shade trees”.

      Today, we have seen flammable white fir and incense cedar clogging the understory of those formerly fire resistant stands. One thing people don’t understand is that the remaining old growth never had to develop the deepest of root systems, to better compete with the water-intensive understory. With the water-greedy bearclover always present, water is even more scarce, and the old growth is now quite susceptible to lesser and lesser droughts, and the bark beetles and wildfires that always follow.

      Yes, we can mitigate those effects, much in the same way the esteemed First Residents did. If we are allowed to restore these forests to a more “normal” condition.

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