Down & Dead Fuels

The 204 Cow Fire in eastern Oregon started yesterday, 8/29, and has burned 5,516 acres since then, mostly on the Malheur National Forest. From InciWeb:

Fuels Involved:
* Timber (Litter and Understory)
* Brush (2 feet)

Lower elevations mostly lodgepole pine with a large amount of dead and down. Mid-slope mixed conifer with dead standing and punky down wood. High elevations old fire scars with sparse fuels.

Here’s an image from the USFS, an example of the “mostly lodgepole pine with a large amount of dead and down” in the area — a tough fire to fight and one that, if left alone, would likely be stand replacing. This is not a pure lodgepole stand — lots of true fir, Doug-fir, etc.

27 thoughts on “Down & Dead Fuels”

  1. This fire is in an area where a bark beetle outbreak started in 2013-2014. The Cornet-Windy Ridge Fire on the Wallowa-Whitman a couple of years ago also burned in similar situations (but the trees hadn’t been down that long). The photo provided is a little confusing because it appears that dead trees were cut down to mitigate hazards on a trail? In certainly wouldn’t have that much on the forest floor if there wasn’t a trail there.

  2. This is a great fire! The Forest Service is managing the fire for resource benefit, meaning the agency is managing the fire to consume fuels and restore fire regimes, rather than putting it out. The agency is to be commended for this kind of approach to wildfire!

    There is a lot of this kind of forest on the Malheur. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of value in lodgepole, so we’re hard pressed to find a use for it (maybe torrefaction). The Southern Blues Restoration Collaborative CFLRP believes these kinds of fires are necessary to restore the ecosystem in that part of the Blue Mountains.

  3. Jane, I agree with you on managing the fire. The Forest Service is slowly getting on the ball and I expect we will see more of this. Need to advertise more. Let people know that fire is needed, lightning fires that is.

  4. What started out as a preventative measure and extremely bad timing, especially the time of year when temperatures are at their highest and lowest point of moisture content, the forest service decided to start a fire that quickly has gotten out of hand.

    This was a very poor decision on the part of the forest service. We do need controlled burns to lower possible fuels in our forests, but certainly the proper timing of such burns is important as well. Had they waited until the end of September, beginning of October, would have been much better to manage a controlled burn when temperatures are lower and humidity levels rise.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am no expert on the matter, but common sense should rule out over policy that doesn’t make sense.

  5. Interesting, one comment says it was started by lightning and another by the FS. If it is being managed for “resource benefit”, then you can bet the FS is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a day with burnout operations. Not a good time of year to play with fire. Much better to put the fire out as soon as possible. Leave the “resource benefit” fires for later in the year.
    I haven’t seen anything good about catastrophic “resource benefit” fires.

  6. The Cow Fire was a natural ignition; the Forest Service is managing it to achieve resource objectives like reducing fuels, restoring species composition, and generally attempting to return an out-of-whack ecosystem to a condition that is more resilient to future disturbance.

    I realize that fire management during the fire season is scary to some. But the region is called the Blue Mountains for a good reason: historically, the area burned regularly, including during summer months, pumping a lot of smoke into the air. We are finally learning from history to emulate those disturbance patterns, although it is one that is new to many humans who are relatively new to the landscape.

    That’s not to say that suppression doesn’t have a role, or that all fires are suitable for management like the Cow Fire. But the location of this fire suggests that the agency can safely and successfully box and contain the fire and let it do some work for us.

    It’s also true that managed fire is not free – but nor is a full suppression show; and in fact, full suppression is made possible by a blank check paid for by us taxpayers. But when managing a fire can be done safely in a way that does not kick the can down the road (because every fire we put out now is only putting off a future fire and its smoke, which we may not be able to control), I think we owe it to future generations and future forests to be brave and do what’s right for the land.

    • I posted the photo only to show what type of fuels these folks are dealing with. Rx fire is much needed in many areas, but with this much fuel, Rx fire is difficult or impossible.

  7. It seems to me the Fire people are really good at learning, they have a structure for it and so on. If WFU is a thing that needs to happen, suppression folks have to learn by doing.

    At the same time, experiencing your home, animals, friends or family burning up because folks were learning does not make your situation any better.

  8. This “managed fire” appears to have taken a turn, requiring retardant drops from at least 2 Type 1 air tankers–those are the big ones, P-3 Orions or C130’s carrying 3,000 gallons or larger. Weather forecast in the area is for continued hot, dry, windy conditions. It would be interesting to see how much has been spent on suppression, so far burning nearly 8,000 acres–is it $1 MM per day which seems to be the norm?
    Regarding a previous comment about Lodgepole Pine having little or no value–actually it is used extensively to produce premium grade stud lumber, as was the case locally until the facility in Prairie City, less than 20 miles away shut down about 10 years ago due to lack of log supply. I totally agree that we need to use fire as part of the prescription to reduce fuel loads. But my preference would be to put the feller bunchers, skidders, et al to work thinning out/logging overcrowded forests before fire is put onto the ground rather than building firelines during an emergency action.

    • Yeah, it’s been hot and windy out there. And I’m sure it isn’t cheap to maintain and fight: it takes humanpower to manage that long fireline.

      And yes, it would be great if Prairie Wood Products was still operating! Unfortunately, the owner couldn’t be coaxed into staying open, even with supply on the upswing.

    • Yep! Who could’ve predicted that warm breezes would blow in the mountains in advance of an early September ‘cool’ front? I’m sure that happens just about every year, in this month, eh? Weather dynamics say that dry winds blow in advance of a cold front, usually from the southwest. Once the front passes through, with very little precipitation, the winds shift around 180 degrees, often with increased velocity, and lowering humidity. This is very bad for a fire over 1000 acres. I’m confident that the Forest Service doesn’t have a line around it, now, making it a danger to fight.

      Again, we should not be ‘playing with fire’ during this time of year. We’re gonna ‘get burned’. It seems like one generation of firefighters finally ‘learns’, only to have a new and naive one take over, trying the same madness, with greater fuel loads.

    • Susan Jane Brown: “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of value in lodgepole, so we’re hard pressed to find a use for it”

      Javier: “Regarding a previous comment about Lodgepole Pine having little or no value–actually it is used extensively to produce premium grade stud lumber”

      I’m curious, almost all photographs I’ve seen of Lodgepole Pine forests show nothing more than match sticks. Hence the name Lodgepole. But I’m curious if there were ever any old growth Lodgepole forests which were not matchsticks, but rather much like this photo taken by Walter Feller in the San Bernardino forest near Big Bear in SoCal.

      I’ve been following some work of Julia Burton who works with Forest ecosystem management and silviculture and had a photo of a rather large Lodgepole Pine and stated this:

      “Big old open-grown lodgepole pines in an otherwise dense, younger even-aged stand — evidence for history of frequent low severity fire regime in high elevation forests?”

      Same thing with this photo by photo artist Tim Livingston

      Again I guess the question is, were or are there any old growth Lodgepole forests or has centuries of Indians lighting fires everywhere long before Europeans came and viewed the forests changed all that ? Does any company out there develop Lodgepole plantations for creating wider girth trees as opposed to matchstick forest harvesting ? Other than Lincoln Log home kits and Home Depot copper-sulphate treated fence posts, what else do they use them for ? Sweden plantations are also matchsticks, but they’re Scots Pine.

  9. Steve, I think it really depends on the area. I didn’t work on the Malheur, but on the volcanic plateau of Central Oregon lodgepole is the only species that like the cold pumice soils so aren’t in competition with ppine or fir (white or grand depending on where you are).

    I’ve never cored that old of an lpp, in my experience bugs (Mountain Pine Beetle specifically) usually gets them first. Here’s a good description of the Rocky Mountain lodgepole and how it behaves in the Rockies from the Fire Effects Information System.

    “Tree characteristics: Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine grows 45 to 150 feet (13-45 m) tall [17,140,180,200,217,219], with diameters exceeding 30 inches (76 cm) [140,180,219]. Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine often grows tall without reaching large diameters [309]; in Utah, trees only 5 inches (13 cm) in diameter at base are often 50 feet (15 m) tall [180]. Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine grows rapidly where competition is limited, reaching 79 feet (24 m) tall and 16 inches (41 cm) in diameter in 50 to 60 years [17]. The average lifespan of Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine is 150 to 200 years [37,170], though some Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine trees live more than 400 years [51,123,170,219,299]. ”

    But my experience in that part of Oregon is that it’s not quite like the Cascades, not quite like the Sierra, not quite like the Rockies, and varies quite a bit within the area, from say Burns to Pendleton. I’d ask a silviculturist in the area to be sure what is generally going on.

    It’s hard to say in my part of the Rockies (Colorado) if LPP is increasing or not. Old trees are dying and would have to check many areas to see how/if seedlings are there, or whether they’re waiting for the next fire to get established.

    • In any region, when lodgepole succumbs to MPB, age, etc., the amount of downed, dead material can be quite high, and lodgepole takes longer to decompose that ponderosa and true firs. Makes for heavy fuel loads.

      • The other thing I think about is “jackstrawing”. It seems to me that because LPP tends to be relatively long and skinny, they may be more prone to jackstrawing, leading to more ladder fuels. Not sure I’ve seen that studied. So I looked it up and found this old Smokey Wire piece by Bob Zybach and others from 2013. I miss Bob!

        I always like hearing about Leiburg’s observations.. especially the frequent Native American burning at the end of this quote:

        “Here’s what Leiberg observed about lodgepole pine fire regimes in the Oregon Cascades in 1899:

        (p. 298) The southern and central portions are covered with stands of lodgepole pine, all reforestations after fires and representative of all ages of burns from one hundred fifty years ago [ca. 1750] up to the present time [1899]. There is no portion of these or the heavier stands of alpine hemlock and noble fir in the northern sections of the township that have not been visited by fire within the past forty-five years [since 1855]. Reforestations consist wholly of lodgepole pine as the first growth. In some places on warm southern declivities brush growth comes in after fires. In other localities a grass and sedge sward covers the ground. It is clearly evident that many of the fires have been set for the purpose of promoting these grass growths and enlarging the possible sheep range. It is also noticeable that wherever fires have been kept down for four or five years there is gradual return to forest and a disappearance of the grass.

        Here’s what he observed about fire scars around Klamath Lake:

        (p. 290-291) The custom of the Indians of peeling the yellow pine at certain seasons of the year to obtain the cambium layer which they use for food, is in some localities a fruitful contributory cause toward destruction of the yellow pine by fire. They do not carry the peeling process far enough to girdle the tree, but they remove a large enough piece of bark to make a gaping wound which never heals over and which furnishes an excellent entrance for fire. Throughout the forests of the Klamath reservation trees barked in this manner are very common. Along the eastern margin of Klamath marsh they are found by the thousands.

        Finally, a description of some eastside spotted owl, lynx, and wolf habitat:

        (p. 277) The aspect of the forest, its composition, the absence of any large tracts of solid old-growth of the species less capable of resisting fire, and the occurrence of veteran trees of red fir, noble fir, white pine, alpine hemlock, etc., singly or in small groups scattered through stands of very different species, indicate without any doubt the prevalence of widespread fires throughout this region long before the coming of the white man. But, on the other hand, the great diversity in the age of such stands as show clearly their origin as reforestations after fires, proves that the fires during the Indian occupancy were not of such frequent occurrence nor of such magnitude as they have been since the advent of the white man.

        (p. 277) The age of the burns chargeable to the era of Indian occupancy can not in most cases be traced back more than one hundred and fifty years. Between that time and the time of the white man’s ascendancy, or, between the years 1750 and 1855, small and circumscribed fires evidently were of frequent occurrence. There were some large ones. Thus, in T. 37 S., R. 5 E., occurs a growth of white fir nearly 75 per cent pure covering between 4,000 and 5,000 acres. It is an even-aged stand 100 years old and is clearly a reforestation after a fire which destroyed an old growth of red fir one hundred and five or one hundred and ten years ago. A similar tract occurs in T. 36 S., R. 5 E., only that here the reforestation is white pine instead of white fir.

        (p. 277) The largest burns directly chargeable to the Indian occupancy are in Ts. 30 and 31 S., Rs. 8 and 9 E. In addition to being the largest, they are likewise the most ancient. The burns cover upward of 60,000 acres, all but 1,000 or 1,100 acres being in a solid block. This tract appears to have been systematically burned by the Indians during the past three centuries [ca. 1600 to 1855]. Remains of three forests are distinctly traceable in the charred fragments of timber which here and there litter the ground.”

        • Thank you for the Leiberg quotes, Sharon. Thomas M. Bonnicksen wrote, in his America’s Ancient Forests, that “The ancient lodgepole pine forest was less remarkable for the size of its trees than for the majesty of the scenery of which it was a part. So it’s beauty was best seen from a distance. Those who saw this forest up close usually complained about the difficulty of traveling through its ‘thick pines and fallen timber,’ as as trapper Osborne Russell noted while exploring Yellowstone in 1835.”

          Bonnicksen quotes Leiberg as well as John Muir, on fire in lodgepole stands:

          “During the column, dry season of Indian summer, the fire creeps quietly along the ground, feeding on the dry needles and burs; then, arriving at the foot of a tree, there resiny bark is ignited, and the heated air ascends … dragging the flames swiftly upward; then the leaves catch fire, and an immense column of flame … rushes aloft thirty or forty feet above the top of the tree…. It lasts, however, only a few seconds … to be succeeded by others along the fire line at irregular intervals for weeks at a time– tree after tree flashing and darkening, leaving the trunks and branches hardly scarred. The heat, however, is sufficient to kill the trees, and … in a few years the bark shrivels and falls off. Belts miles in extent are thus killed and left standing with the branches on, peeled and rigid, appearing gray in the distance, like misty clouds. Later the branches drop off, leaving a forest of bleached spars. At length the roots decay in the forlorn trunks are blown down during some storm, and piled one upon another.”

    • My guess is that lodgepole pines have encroached into mixed conifer stands (or even pure pine stands), due to decades of fire suppression. Their ability to live long enough, in low light, until they can produce cones ensures their future, after an intense wildfire. In some places in the Sierra Nevada, lodgepoles get very large, up to 4 feet across. Often, these individuals have multiple forks, making their timber values less. They are often high on the list in the marking guidelines to cut. Complete removal from mixed conifer stands is usually a good idea, for many reasons.

      Regarding pure lodgepole stands, the ones I saw in Oregon, surrounding Diamond Lake, have reached the end of their cycle. Bark beetles and disease take over, before the stands burn with higher intensities.Such forests could benefit from some sort of all-aged management styles, to achieve “temporal diversity” on a landscape scale.

  10. A friend of mine just shared this photo from Waldo Lake in Oregon.

    Is this a “healthy forests?”

    The correct answer is yes.

    • A ‘lovely’ source of atmospheric carbon, which supports no spotted owls or goshawks. Some ‘scientists’ insist that we need more “larger and more intense wildfires”, ignoring impacts on senior citizens and defenseless children.

  11. The picture depicts LPP doing what it does… Burning, regenerating, repeat. An ongoing argument remains as to how much carbon is actually released in fire. A major component of “smoke’ is steam, and the remnant snags and down logs (that will persist for many decades) attest to much pre-fire carbon remaining in situ. My hunch, supported by research, is that much less carbon is released than supposed…
    Abstract from Jeff Stenzel research (Univ of Idaho): Wildfire is an essential earth‐system process, impacting ecosystem processes and the carbon cycle. Forest fires are becoming more frequent and severe, yet gaps exist in the modeling of fire on vegetation and carbon dynamics. Strategies for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from wildfires include increasing tree harvest, largely based on the public assumption that fires burn live forests to the ground, despite observations indicating that less than 5% of mature tree biomass is actually consumed. This misconception is also reflected though excessive combustion of live trees in models. Here, we show that regional emissions estimates using widely implemented combustion coefficients are 59%–83% higher than emissions based on field observations. Using unique field datasets from before and after wildfires and an improved ecosystem model, we provide strong evidence that these large overestimates can be reduced by using realistic biomass combustion factors and by accurately quantifying biomass in standing dead trees that decompose over decades to centuries after fire (“snags”). Most model development focuses on area burned; our results reveal that accurately representing combustion is also essential for quantifying fire impacts on ecosystems. Using our improvements, we find that western US forest fires have emitted 851 ± 228 Tg CO2 (~half of alternative estimates) over the last 17 years, which is minor compared to 16,200 Tg CO2 from fossil fuels across the region.

    • Soooo, where do the HUGE majority of today’s human-caused, higher-intensity, wildfires fit into these supposedly ‘natural’ systems? How much more carbon (than pre-European lightning fires) goes into the atmosphere because of this situation? There are a multitude of other sources of carbon, due to today’s intense wildfires, that most scientists don’t include into their studies. It is not “beyond the scope” of these studies but, more like “Beyond the scope of what we want to study”.

  12. Little is “natural” anymore — the best we can hope for is “natural-ness”. There are no easy answers, but I’d argue that the biggest change in the equation is structural losses in WUI. Managing that risk intelligently — for example, avoiding logging roadless areas 40 miles from the nearest home under the guise of “reducing risk” when 1000’s of acres of high-risk WUI are easily accessible — calls for a lot of wisdom and long-term strategy. Also, as we’ve seen for decades now, it’s impossible to control all forest fires, and many escape initial control in spite of our best efforts. Climate change factors exacerbate consequences and these will be with us for many coming years. How much money we’re willing to spend on big fires until the “really effective control” arrives (a change in weather) bedevils resource agencies and Congress.


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