LA Times Reports Need for More Prescribed Burns in Western Forests

The following article and photographs were published earlier this month in the LA Times and received virtually no public commentary. A few days ago an environmental group, Natural Resources Defense Council, released a study in which it was claimed that more than 200 million Americans were subjected to wildfire smoke in 2011. USA Today reported this news under the headline “Wildfire Smoke Becoming a Serious Health Hazard”:

Is human health just one more reason to restore regular prescribed burns to fire-prone forests, shrublands, and grasslands in the western US?

Trees burned in the Rim FireTrees burned by the Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest. The Rim was the largest Sierra Nevada wildfire in more than a century of record keeping. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / September 13, 2013)

Scientists call for more controlled burns in West’s forests

By Bettina BoxallOctober 3, 2013, 4:14 p.m.
Some of the West’s leading fire scientists are calling for the increased use of managed burns to reduce fuel levels in the region’s forests, warning that climate change is leaving them more vulnerable to large, high-severity wildfires.
In a paper published Friday in the journal Science, seven fire and forest ecologists say the rate of fuel reduction and restoration treatments is far below what is needed to help sustain forest landscapes in an era of rising temperatures and increased drought.

“Fire policy that focuses on suppression only delays the inevitable, promising more dangerous and destructive future forest fires,” wrote the authors, who include Scott Stephens of UC Berkeley, James Agee of the University of Washington, William Romme of Colorado State University and Thomas Swetnam of the University of Arizona.

The authors also made a couple of suggestions that are bound to be more controversial than stepping up managed fire rates.

Some forest lands may be so fire-prone, they wrote, “that building should be prevented, discouraged or removed” through regulation, insurance rates or tax incentives.

They also said significantly more federal money for restoration work could be available if state and local authorities picked up more of the firefighting tab in wildland areas bordering development.

In ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests that are adapted to frequent wildfires that burn at low and moderate severity, Stephens said the past century of fire suppression and logging has set the stage for more damaging blazes.

Timber harvest removed most of the largest, fire-resistant trees, while the government’s anti-fire policies promoted dense regrowth and fuel buildup. Now rising temperatures are lengthening the fire season.

“Those forests are so vulnerable,” said Stephens, the paper’s lead author. A key concern is that more severe wildfires in a warmer, drier climate can kill such large patches of conifers that the tree seed bank is lost, thwarting forest regeneration and leading to permanent conversion to shrub fields.

Land managers need to conduct widespread prescribed burns and manage wildfires to reduce forest fuel loads, the authors said.

National parks and a few national forests with huge, remote wilderness areas in Arizona and Idaho have done that. But in many California forests, large-scale managed burn programs have been hindered by air quality regulations and concerns about endangering neighboring rural communities.

If it’s not possible to conduct extensive managed burns, then mechanical thinning of smaller, dense tree growth can help, Stephens said. “This is not,” he emphasized, “cut the big trees.”

The still-smoldering Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park is an example of the kind of fire the authors are concerned about. The largest wildfire to burn in the Sierra Nevada in more than a century of record keeping, the Rim killed big forest patches thousands of acres in size.

Stephens, who conducts research on plots in the Stanislaus, recently  returned to a spot where he had earlier come across towering pines and incense cedar several hundred years old. He wanted to see whether the big trees had survived the Rim’s flames.

“I got to the exact plot,” Stephens said. “Unfortunately all the trees died. It was really a kind of sad day.”

15 thoughts on “LA Times Reports Need for More Prescribed Burns in Western Forests”

  1. “Timber harvest removed most of the largest, fire-resistant trees…” More than TWENTY years ago! Yes, trees can grow a lot in just twenty years. However, the biggest trees burned in the Rim Fire were “protected” from logging but not protected from giant raging firestorms. “Whatever happens”, happened!

    ‘ “Those forests are so vulnerable,” said Stephens, the paper’s lead author. A key concern is that more severe wildfires in a warmer, drier climate can kill such large patches of conifers that the tree seed bank is lost, thwarting forest regeneration and leading to permanent conversion to shrub fields.’ That is the entire Groveland Ranger District, in a nutshell, now. With wildfires occurring about every 13 years, in that part of the Sierra Nevada, how can we grow large trees, that survive those inevitable wildfires, “natural”, or not? With more and more and more man-caused fires, which isn’t going to change, it is so very clear that doing nothing won’t accomplish anything but encourage perpetual brushfields and exclude big trees, owls and goshawks.

    Regarding controlled burns, Sierra Pacific Industries often gets waivers, to do their burning, while the Forest Service has to deal with the ever-smaller burning windows, and ever-tightening prescriptions. Over 95% of all burning accomplishments are completed in the South. That, right there, should tell the story. Additionally, much of California is unsuitable for “Let-Burn” fires.

  2. I was just talking with a friend from Bend, Oregon and mentioned he must of enjoyed all this great weather they have had these last few weeks. He said yes, except for all the smoke from all the burning. This was after a summer of smoke. Maybe smoke has become part of our environment.
    (doesn’t the release of all this carbon into the atmosphere add to global warming?)
    I think if you have a fire in July you better try and put it out as soon as possible.
    Seems like there is a lot more to forest management than more fires.

    • Stump

      Re: “(doesn’t the release of all this carbon into the atmosphere add to global warming?)”
      –> The carbon would eventually be released anyway when the trees die or the products made from them are discarded. But then the forests that grow where the burn occured would reabsorb that same amount of carbon eventually so it is recycled and does not add new carbon to the global ecosystem or to fuel global warming in the long run. So renewable resources such as trees are not a net long term contributor to global warming.

      What truly adds to global warming is when we extract carbons which could have been left stored underground and consume them above ground. Using these non renewable resources is always a net long term addition to above ground carbons.

      Note: I am assuming that the majority of climatologists are correct in their assumptions about the impact of carbon on global warming although I don’t think that the case is closed on the dispute.

      • When soils are damaged by wildfires, the same land cannot sequester the same amount of carbon as it did before. A brushfield doesn’t hold as much carbon as the previous forest. Since it is a longterm thing, that makes for some serious carbon “shortfall”, when we’re talking about a million acres.

        • I remember watching a OPBS story about the Biscuit fire last year and they were talking about how in some places the fire was so hot it vaporized the soil and it blew right out into the ocean. They said it with smiles too, as if, ” wasn’t this fire great”.

          • Stump

            To add to Larry’s comment, forests sometimes need adjacent forests to shelter them and to help them reestablish themselves. If extreme wildfire occurs in large enough adjacent areas over a short period of years at inopportune times in the climate cycle, then the forest ecosystem impact on climate can be greatly affected and “desertification” can occur. This has occurred in some places in Africa and the middle east where the need for daily fuel wood stripped the forests and they were not able to grow back. I am told that Israel has been able to use drip irrigation to establish some nice forests. In other places intense reforestation efforts have been used in attempts to hold back the desert. It is a very tricky balance which is why the health and vigor of forests has to be the #1 priority in our national forests. We just can not predict exactly where those tipping points are.

          • Biscuit had only 16% of its soil burned severely, the portion of that which was vaporized was even smaller than that. In Davis fire with 75% high mortality, only 5% of soil was burned severely, not an untypically low percent. But even with low fuel levels some soils can vaporize under right conditions.
            It varies by fire but soil impacts are often less than many think. That said, I am not into losing old trees anyplace.

          • So, 16% of 500,000 acres means that a mere 80,000 acres, or 125 square miles of land had severely burned soils. Additionally, much of those Biscuit soils were already quite poor, to begin with. The loss of essential macro-nutrients ensures that forests will have serious trouble becoming re-established, and a re-burn continues to be likely. People should be reminded that just because the Biscuit is in the coastal mountains, and gets plenty of rainfall/snow, that doesn’t mean “rainforest” lives there.

        • Larry

          Great clarification. Great reason for sound forest management including density control and controlled burns where appropriate as you and I seem to agree on.

          • Important not to exaggerate the impacts of fires on soils, it is often not as bad as people think, most areas in biscuit with complete mortality had only minor soil impacts.

            That said, in other areas it was really scalded and will not recover. And off the charts for soil impacts on those long term soil plots Bormann had been monitoring.

            There were too many people in denial about how hot Biscuit was in places, they called it the gentle giant. But they did not spend the time on it that i did.

            given the conditions when Biscuit burned hottest, I don;t think any kind of treatment would have made any difference, it torched over areas with little fuel, it was climate driven at that point and unlike many other areas in the West, I don;t think we can say that that ecosystem had a densely overgrown forest, Much of it was not even forested but shrub lands.

            The point can be made that such shrub lands tend to burn hot as hell and it was within its natural range of conditions. I can;t answer that.

            But plenty of other areas across the west that burned hot such as the AZ Wallow fire did not have forest to manage, large prescribed burns might have helped but timber management was never an option across much of it.

            On gentle terrain such as N AZ, large scale thinning is possible but not the case on much federal lands with some of the worst fuel problems,

    • I think it has only been recently, Stump, that people have lived (mostly) apart from smoke. Most of the world still heats and cooks with wood, so it is part of those people’s normal environment. When I was a kid many people in Portland, Oregon still heated with wood, and wigwam burners and burn barrels were everywhere. Same with field burning, beach bonfires, homecoming celebrations, and campfires.

      When I was still a reforestation contractor, we often had to do northslope burns on the Coast Range during the height of fire season — in July and August — because that’s when the fuel was dry enough to be readily controlled. Also, most fires were designed to be ignited when — and how — the smoke was most likely to form a column and be dispersed over the ocean, rather than inundate local communities. Even so, sometimes temperature inversions or mountain winds forced smoke into a populated area — however, these events rarely lasted more than a few hours at a time, and did not take place in most communities most years. With wildfires, which can last for weeks on end under all kinds of changes in the weather, the chances for being smoked out are much greater, and typically for much longer periods of time.

  3. I may sound like a jerk but I am not really sympathetic to people who complain about smoke from forest fires which are as much a part of the natural environment as rain. And that includes prescribed burns which have too often held back by smoke concerns on public lands. But I do not have asthma or other problems.

    • So, is it OK to complain about the smoke from man-caused firestorms? Yes, I have become sick from thick wildfire smoke, coming from Yosemite. Ditto for my neighbors, too. Ditto for Reno and Tahoe residents. It is unfortunate that more prescribed fires cannot be accomplished, in the Sierra Nevada, due to multiple reasons. I really don’t think that prescribed fires are resisted by locals, here, since there are so few of them. Usually, the Forest Service does more pile burning, around here, partly because they are afraid of escapes and liability, as well as many areas needing fuels modifications, first.

      This year has been very dry, and all burn projects have not been “in prescription”. Sometimes, as areas meet prescriptions, there are “no-burn days” enforced by the State. You can also factor in a lack of fire personnel, due to using up appointment days for temps. Most non-fire personnel in the Forest Service are no longer fire qualified.

      • trying to explain that smoke from a prescribed fire or fuels treatment might avoid much worse smoke in a wildfire is an argument which is hard to win with some people. who seem to want another reason to snarl at the feds. Smoke is impossible to avoid in many areas, and come to think of it, it did make me illish too in AZ a few years back.

        The feds around Prescott, AZ got hammered while I was there about smoke issues with prescribed fire. I wanted the people to know, idjuts many of them, that they were living in the wrong place then.

        • There IS a lot of “snowbird habitat”, in Arizona. *smirk*

          When I was in central Idaho, on assignment, chocolate-colored drift smoke from northern California had an effect, many hundreds of miles away. Certainly, that won’t happen from prescribed fires.

          I guess preservationists could claim that Sierra Nevada fuels modifications aren’t needed, since there is a huge backlog of prescribed fire projects. Plus, those areas need “maintenance burns”, to keep those fuels at-bay. Luckily, the bearclover is perfect for facilitating such burns. All too often, the fire folks focus more on “good burning conditions”, rather than accomplishing targets, in wetter conditions.


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