“The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix”

I just received a press release about a new book, The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, by Dominick DellaSala and Chad Hanson.

“For the first time extensive documentation from around the world reveals that
forests and other plant communities need a variety of different types of fires,
including severe ones, to rejuvenate over the long-term. These findings are timely as
Members of Congress propose to weaken environmental laws based on the
assumption that fires are damaging to forests, and logging is needed to reduce fire

“For the first time”? Ask Steve Pyne about that.

The release goes on to say that one of the conclusions the authors draw is that “Forest thinning in the backcountry does not improve homeowner safety, and does not meaningfully influence large, weather-driven fires.”

My response: Thinning and fuels reduction CAN meaningfully influence large, weather-driven fires, as I saw for myself most recently on the 2014 36 Pit Fire in Oregon, where thinned areas had the effect we’d expect — the crown fire slowed, dropped to the ground, and gave firefighters a change to be successful with suppression.  Thinning and fuels reduction DOES reduce the likelihood of large, weather-driven fires and can help limit their spread an intensity.

I predict that numerous news outlets will cover this book.

13 thoughts on ““The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix””

  1. Of course, one COULD say that all larger wildfires are “weather-driven”. When the Rim Fire started, it was just a normal summer day, with the normal terrain-enhanced morning breezes that flow down the Tuolumne River watershed. If we can slow down, or stop, most of the little fires, through active management, then we should have fewer large fires that are enhanced by all the factors that lead to towering columns of smoke, ash and embers. We can plan for drought, bark beetles and wildfires… or not. We can let forests we cherish die, rot and burn….. or not. We can use thinning projects, mastication and prescribed fire…. or not. We can embrace damaging wildfires, burned homes and incinerated habitats… or not.

  2. Some more information about what is in the book. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/book/9780128027493

    I do see that the author(s) used the term “megafires”. Haven’t other eco-points-of-views been saying not to use that particular term? I really don’t subscribe to the idea that there is a lack of high-intensity burned areas, or even snag habitat, currently on Forest Service lands, in the Sierra Nevada. I can probably say the same thing for some other areas.

    That being said, there certainly ARE places where their methods would work best. The Forest Service does recognize this, and their salvage plans set aside some very significant acres as “snag habitat”. Hanson cannot escape his past desires to end all timber sales, everywhere, and that should be factored into the fabric of these opinions. All too often, other facts and variables are either ignored, or discounted, for various non-scientific reasons.

    • “catastrophic” is the term people are trying to avoid (in recognition of the fact that wildfire, including stand-replacing fires, are part of the natural system).

      • Unfortunately, our forests aren’t “natural” in the way you want. Here in the Sierra Nevada, ancient trees are dying in wildfires, in unprecedented numbers. Are we supposed to pretend that man-caused stand-replacing wildfires are not “catastrophic”. The Rim Fire burned up much of the last prime old growth in that part of the central Sierra Nevada. I do consider that to be “catastrophic”.

        • Yes, when you lose a forest you need to keep, that’s a catastrophe, even if the loss means it can’t be exploited by capitalists.

  3. Seems like everything you read on the internet and in the papers someone is saying how good fire is for the forests. I guess people think these dead trees are going to come back to life or something. I can’t believe that whole watersheds incinerated at costs of millions of dollars could be considered beneficial to the forests or the planet for that matter.
    To watch hundreds of years of forest habitat go up in smoke in afternoon to me is simply tragic.

    • For the ever-popular and ultra-dubious “resource benefits”, at a cost of many HUNDREDS of MILLIONS of dollars. We need to ask those fans of “Let-Burn” about those specific “resource benefits” that are costing us so much money and eliminating habitats that take hundreds of years to “grow”.

  4. Fire is neither good nor bad for forests: it is an important disturbance. Fire is a problem for humans when it kills people or destroys/damages property or valuable resources (either directly or indirectly). In one sense, fire is like rain: too little or too much may have profound impacts on the natural and human environments. We can’t control rain, yet, but we can and must manage forests and fire, where appropriate, and where we can (Dale Bosworth makes this point in the Q&A with him in the August edition of The Forestry Source.)

    One of my students recently gave an oral position statement in which he advocated for the removal of the major dams on the Columbia River. This would, he and others say, restore natural flows and allow for more-natural salmon passage. Well, that would be good, of course, but it would come at the expense of commercial barge shipping (and increased truck traffic along the river), decreased water for the vast agricultural lands in the inland Northwest, reduce the amount of non-CO2-producing power generation, and so on. I asked one question of this student:

    If the dams are removed, who will be accountable for the lives and property lost when the Columbia floods, as it surely will? (See the Vanport Flood of 1948, for example.)

    The student had no answer.

    We manage rivers, forests, and fire for very good reasons. Although a hands-off approach is appropriate in some areas, such as wilderness, we cannot use the “let nature takes its course” approach in most areas.

    I would ask DellaSala and Hanson: Who will be accountable for the lives and property lost by the large, severe fires we choose not to fight in the name of “ecological restoration”?

    • Disturbance has its place. But in an anthropogenic (and I wish to heck -centric) environment, disturbances run on a hierarchy of preference or desirability.

      My logger cronies just got their task force off the Glacier Rim north of Columbia Falls. It’s in snags left from the 2003 Robert (Wedge was further up the river) right where it could have jumped and run into the park again.

      They came to the fire straight off some private-ground work around Belton where it’s doghair stunted repressed lodgepole. Started with a guy who tried to hand work it himself and it was just too much. So, the prescription is to whack everything lodgepole and leave whatever other components exist, mainly small DF and some WL (used to be much larchier looking at the stumps and older stuff) in hopes those will release and grow nicely. But the existing stands were stunted and choked, not possible to “restart” it into decent LP. The funny thing is, the neighbors were all in a lather about it when they started and now they like the result a lot — meaning there’s more work to be had. So — if you put good disturbance on view of the public, that’s a good thing.

  5. One might also ask, who will be accountable for the lives, habitat, and property damaged because fires are made more severe by clearcutting, dense replanting, fire suppression, and roads?

    • That hasn’t been happening, other than the very necessary fire suppression, in the National Forests of the Sierra Nevada. So, who is accountable for not accomplishing fuels projects and prescribed burning, in the western part of the country?

    • Dense replanting doesn’t happen any more. Seedling start is a science now. And roads do a HECK of a lot to help keep small fires from becoming giants, especially in a year like this when any fire is a potential monster.

  6. “Mixed severity” fires are the kinder gentler politically correct version of reality. Doesn’t sound so bad does it? A tree burned here, a tree there, a small opening here for biodiversity,and of course, the old growth is spared. Its as funny and ludicrous as the spin coming out of the 4FRI in Arizona. How many times have you heard that the proposed logging will “clear brush and small diameter trees”? When the reality of the 4FRI EIS states that 10 times more “sawtimber” will be removed (not small trees) than “dry biomss” (small trees and brush). But…it’s more, how do you Americans say…”palatable” to discerning, sensitive, thoughtful people.

    The various new forest plans in Region 1 tout “mixed severity” fires as the panacea of “prescribed natural fires.”…but the reality can be seen in the various wilderness areas that have burned significantly in the last 20 years. Oh you’ll see mixed severity on google Earth…but you’ll see a lot more high severity stand replacing. About the only “mixed” you see is in the refugia of river bottoms and occasionally north slopes. In this era of GIS mapping and Google earth (whose clarity is so improved I’m seeing engineering projects being designed off of them)…you wouldn’t think it would be to difficult to accurately map some of these wilderness burns and let the public know what the reality would be like IF…we didn’t have those evil roads to put 98% of the fires out by 10:00 AM. Out of sight out of mind is one thing…but in my back yard? Good luck selling that one. I sense even the hipster Missoulians of today…would be thinking like their ancestors did in 1911.

    I was looking at a picture of a “variable retention” clearcut in Idaho that was touted as “mimicking” the “mixed severity” fire, and I don’t have a problem with VRT..I like what the Canadians are doing with them…but I’m thinking “show me where this happens in nature”…and what mimics the “high severity” fire?…of course…variable retention is in…clearcutting is out…so I guess that means that all past fires were “mixed severity”…I don’t think so.

    Yes…if a student is gonna ponder “alternative historical endings”…then he better take the good with the bad. He must contemplate sacrifice. If he wants to ponder what life was like for people in the PNW in 1920 before the dams…he could go to China today…and live off of $5000/year. Even the lowliest Rainbow Family member lives better than the average Chinese. Even the lowliest Rainbow Family Member has a carbon footprint many times larger than the average Chinese. The Chinese are building dams left and right…bringing on a coal fired power plant once a week…and I doubt there are to many of them caring about destroying salmon habitat. (Oh…we could barge hatchery raised salmon around the dams…so excuse me…caring about the “genetically pure wild” salmon LOL…”my fellow Chinese, would somebody please stop the madness and think about the genetically pure wild salmon…I’m willing to keep living like I do now to save them”…is that happening anywhere in China now? LMAO) Your students attitude is a product of the 1% living at the top of the worlds food chain.


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