Familiar Story in California: Clearcuts and Wildfire

Like Morrissey said in the late 1980s…”Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.”
A familiar story in playing out California. The 12,000 acreHog Fire in California is ripping across clearcut lands owned by Sierra Pacific Industries and racing east towards the city of Susanville. From the website of Sierra Pacific Industries:

Fires are a part of the forest ecosystem. Plants and animals have evolved in the presence of fires but after decades of fire suppression and “hands-off” management policies, public land has unnaturally dense forests, which are prone to catastrophic wildfires. These crowded forests contribute to fires that race through the crowns of the trees making them nearly impossible to fight, worsen the soil due to the higher than normal heat intensity, and unnecessarily put human lives, animal habitats and water quality at risk.

At Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), we use modern forest management techniques to reduce the risk of wildfire without damaging the health of the forest. The key to effective fire prevention is removal of dry brush and careful thinning of overgrown forests.

We prepare ahead of time to reduce the threat of fire and to specifically:

Sierra Pacific makes a special effort to give our forests defensible fire space. Our foresters intentionally thin out the forest in strategic spots to help stop wildfires. Typically, these spots are along ridges, near towns, and along major roads – areas where firefighters can make a stand against a raging wildfire. These thinned areas usually have some trees, and are called “shaded fuel breaks.”

SPI actively works with our neighbors, conservation agencies, and fire fighters to make fire awareness a community issue. We curtail our woods operations on high fire danger days. We train all of our woods workers in the use of fire fighting equipment. And we fund and maintain a private road system that is mapped and accessible for fire fighting agencies

After a fire, SPI quickly moves in to restore the forest and prevent environmental degradation. SPI analyzes the fire site to determine impact on soil erosion, water quality, and plant and wildlife habitat. Then, professional foresters develop and implement a plan to replant the forest and restore environmental balance often using a technique known as “subsoiling” to break up the fire-hardened surface and create furrows to catch water before it flows downhill. This allows the water to soak into the furrows and stay on the land.

SPI maintains an extensive “seed bank” that stores seeds collected from the conifers growing on Sierra Pacific lands. After a major fire, we use these seeds to replant the burned area with trees native to the site.

We’ve talked about Sierra Pacific Industries, their clearcuts and (their?) wildfires before.

Clearcutting and Fuel Treatment in California: Will the California Forestry Association Call out Sierra Pacific’s Clearcuts?

A Billion-Dollar Fortune From Timber and Fire

A Wildfire of Corruption

Of course, we all know how this familiar story will end. The timber industry and politicians will blame these wildfires on environmentalists (or “environmental terrorist groups” or “environmental radicals” as Trump’s (disgraced) Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did in 2018. And this familiar blame game will be followed by more calls to “fast track” logging on national forests by categorically excluding timber sales from the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (even though pretty much the entire U.S. Forest Service timber sale could be logged via Categorical Exclusions to NEPA right now). As the Talking Heads said in the early 1980s…”Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.”

UPDATE: The 14,500 acre Gold Fire, burning just north of the Hog Fire, has now made it to this nice patch of “forest.”

39 thoughts on “Familiar Story in California: Clearcuts and Wildfire”

  1. According to CalFire, “A Red Flag warning has been extended through the day until this evening, with anticipated heavy winds and dry lightening in the area of the fire.”

    Show me a forest that wont burn under those conditions.

    • Thank you for your comment Steve. You are quite literally making the same exact point that many “environmental terrorist groups” have been making for decades now. I’ve posted dozens of comments on this blog over the past 10 years pointing out the type of extreme “fire weather” that is a common ingredient for nearly all large wildfires.

      • Matthew, then why single out clearcuts when the same area without clearcuts likely would also burn at high severity?

        • Steve, then why single out “unmanaged” areas when the same area with “management” likely would also burn at high severity?

            • And you didn’t answer mine Steve.

              Singling out Sierra Pacific Industries “management” of their own lands seems like total fair game and a piece of the wildfire puzzle, no?

              Using Sierra Pacific’s own words that they supposedly “use modern forest management techniques to reduce the risk of wildfire without damaging the health of the forest” seems very relevant, not only in the context of their own lands, but all the logging that they do (and advocate for) on our public lands.

              At some point, perhaps the timber industry and their political supporters will take responsibility for their actions, and their words.

              • Likewise, Matthew, perhaps the “environmental” groups and their political supporters that oppose or obstruct active forest management aimed at reducing wildfire extent and severity, and improving ecosystem health, will take responsibility for their actions and their words.

                • I’m going to go out on a limb here, Steve, and say that resource extraction industries are much more responsible for the destruction of the environment, nature, biodiversity and habitat for imperiled species than “environmental” groups.

                  • Enviro groups and the timber industry both have had positive and negative impacts on forests. I admire groups such as The Nature Conservancy in the Wild Turkey Federation for their work on the ground throughout the US to actively manage forests for a wide range of values, including timber, wildlife habitat, and carbon dioxide, without demonizing those on either side of these issues that criticize such work.

  2. Both extremes use lies and misinformation to push their ‘radical’ agendas but, they really don’t have much impact on ‘CASPO-Land’. On Facebook, I find it equally amusing to confront both extremes on their rhetoric and false narratives.

    Comparing SPI’s management to the Forest Service’s is par for the course, with some eco-groups. The truth is that litigation of thinning projects in the Sierra is almost non-existent. Both extremes like to conveniently ignore that fact.

    Personally, I think SPI should broken up, currently enjoying a monopoly on USFS timber sales, in many areas.

    • I don’t see this as a comparison of SPI and the Forest Service, but a demonstration of a fire and forest ecology reality, that highly thinned and “managed” forests burn, and we don’t even know if they burn less or more severely than not managed forests. We don’t know if forest “management” mitigates fire overall. One can always find examples where it did, but there are others where it did not. That’s important to consider.

      The forest around Paradise where the Camp Fire burned was also highly thinned and the slash was even cleaned out by fuel wood gatherers. Still the town burned down.

      • In the Camp Fire, vegetation had little to do with the town burning. The fire had to burn through a substantial amount of thick, unmanaged forest before it got to the SPI clearcuts. It was all about the wind but, if SPI hadn’t salvaged their lands from a previous fire, more people would have died. USFS played a role but not very many of their acres were actually managed.

        “Highly thinned” is a value judgement. Spacing is based on many site-specific conditions. Even a protected 32″ diameter tree is not really considered to be ‘large’, by Sierra Nevada standards. The average cut tree is around 15″, in Sierra Nevada thinning sales. Most of what is being cut is the highly-flammable incense cedar and white fir, improving the species composition. There are multiple benefits to thinning, and not just for fire safety/resilience. We need to judge thinning projects for ALL their pluses and minuses.

        That being said, society doesn’t seem to have a problem with thinning the crowded Sierra Nevada National Forests. We need to do more, actually.

        • “The (Camp) fire had to burn through a substantial amount of thick, unmanaged forest before it got to the SPI clearcuts.”

          Wrong, Larry. The Camp Fire burned through 30,000 acres over 7+ miles of salvage logged/10-year old pyrogenic habitat before the resulting embers rained on the town of Paradise. It was not a thick, unmanaged forest by anyone’s definition… except those who are operating under predominant forestry industry paradigms.

          • I still contend that more fuels (taken out by SPI in their salvage efforts) would have made the Camp Fire MUCH worse. You cannot say that burned and unsalvaged lands would have reduced fire intensity. Since the Forest Service lands were unsalvaged, in the path of the Camp Fire, why are you blaming them for the destruction of Paradise? The wind-driven fire would have burned through ANY forest in front of it. Here’s an example of a Forest Service parcel, which was obviously loaded with ready-to-burn fuels. https://www.google.com/maps/@39.8049982,-121.5157984,141m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

            Here’s an example of unmanaged land, near the ignition point:
            https://www.google.com/maps/@39.8059358,-121.4696751,141m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en Be sure to zoom in and out to see the full extent of the large amount of fuels the fire had to burn through to get to SPI’s salvage plantations.

            • Folks, an important point about the distinction between fire severity and intensity: Severity is a measure of how much biomass — trees, brush, grass, surface debris, duff, etc. — is killed and/or consumed. Intensity is the amount of energy produced (heat) produced. Duration is related factor.

              A grass fire may be severe — all grass and other organic matter is consumed — but this is very low on the intensity scale. A crown fire in a mature forest and a young plantation might be equally severe (all trees killed, all other biomass is consumed), but the fire in the mature forest is likely to be far more intense and of longer duration — lots of large downed logs and other debris burn hot and for a longer duration than the smaller quantities of fuel in a plantation. The more severe a fire and the longer it burns, the greater the impact on soils.

            • Deforestation Santa Fe Published March 8, 2020
              In The New Mexican
              Are you aware that the Forest Service and its collaborators and contractors are doing extreme thinning and/or burning of 80% of the trees on 350 square miles around Santa Fe? The following projects add up to 350 square miles. The Santa Fe Mountain Landscape Resiliency project has already begun deforestation on 43,000 acres. The Encino Vista project is for 128,000 acres. The State joined in and bulldozed 500 acres on Glorieta Mesa (as part of 48,000 acres of similar projects around the state). And the Forest Service will do 750 acres in our sacred Santa Fe Watershed and then they will re-burn every 5 to 15 years. There are many more projects listed on inciweb.nwcg.gov. And this just announced: another 4,455 acre prescribed burn on Rowe Mesa.

              These plans are to reduce fuels. But experts say fuel reduction does not prevent wildfires. “An increasing number of scientists have concluded that climate/weather, not fuels, drives all large blazes,” forest expert George Wuerthner (1/31/20). You cannot log your way out of these fires because they are caused by climate disruption, not fuels. They burned 350,000 acres around Paradise Ca., and it burned to the ground anyway. Australia has been burning millions of acres for decades, and it is still burning. Australians are calling their land “the sacrifice,” hoping the devastation there will awaken the rest of the world to the climate change cause.

              The Forest Service refuses to do an Environmental Impact Statement which requires public involvement and the best available science to be used. They say there will not be “significant impact.” They refuse to do a cost/benefit analysis. We know that trees bring the rain. Where will we get our water if 80% of the trees in the project areas are burned?

              They refuse to analyze the health impacts. Many of us have noticed the severe impacts on our health of the smoky days. The prescribed burn smoke includes toxic ignition devices made of potassium permanganate and antifreeze. Potassium permanganate is a neurotoxin. Univar’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) states, “May be fatal if inhaled.” “Firefighters should wear full protective clothing including self contained breathing.” “Do not allow in waterways or low places.” And of course the smoke contains the mercury, plutonium, DDT, etc. that the trees stored.

              What about the impact on our tourism and economy? Will tourists still come if the mountains are white with smoke? I know 2 professional photographers who don’t come here anymore because they can’t count on clear shots.

              The Forest Service refuses to analyze the impact on climate change. Each acre of coniferous trees burned releases 4.81 tons of carbon (Environment Canada is the reference) which adds up to over a million tons of carbon released just for these projects. Pinon and juniper are fire resistant and are used as fire blocks, but the NM State Land Office says they are not on the “save list” because they are “invasive species.” Do you want them denuding all the beloved pinon and juniper of New Mexico?

              The lack of transparency is the biggest issue. Why are there not big public discussions of such big changes? The Forest Service meetings are simply one sided presentations of the party line of “cut and burn.”

              For research, references and action steps, go to OnceAForest.org, SantaFeForestCoalition.org, TreehuggerSantaFe.org. You Tube Deforestation Santa Fe. Call your elected officials.

            • The 2008 fire that burned through the Concow area and onto SPI land devastated the young plantations that had been thinned (pre-commercial thin) leaving slash. The fire also underburned SPI-owned 2nd growth stands. SPI overpredicted stand-level post-fire mortality in the 2nd growth even though there was no significant crown scorch. In fact much of this acreage experienced a beneficial underburn. But SPI decided to “salvage” large blocks of the area converting the mixed conifer-oak woodland into a giant fire prone plantation.

              • A fire with 60 mph winds behind it will burn everything. I don’t support SPI’s forest practices, but blaming logging for what happened isn’t a rational idea. Fuel levels above Concow were significant, with brush hiding all the dead trees from that 2008 wildfire. In fact, you can see the outlines of where those trees were, in the Google aerial images. Today, that is all that is left of that fuel. We already knew that this area is notoriously fire prone.

  3. Here’s a study that addresses this issue —
    “Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent-fire forests of the western United States?” Bradley, Hanson and DellaSala 2016
    This meta-analysis concludes that Western frequent-fire forests with the highest levels of protection from logging tend to burn least severely—logging defined to include the removal of trees, including small trees for non-commercial fuel reduction. It indicates that forests that have been logged are more likely to burn, and to burn more severely.

    • Hanson and his cohorts are well known for their “Agenda-Driven Science”. We discussed that here: https://forestpolicypub.com/2019/03/28/agenda-driven-science/

      This area has been ‘protected’ for almost 20 years, and its future is sealed. The entire stand will be incinerated, and some Giant Sequoia groves will be threatened by unnaturally-intense firestorms. The McNally and Frog Fires burned nearby, with negative impacts.

      In most areas, management decisions should be made based on site-specific conditions, and not some one-size-fits-all idea that nature, alone, can mitigate decades of ‘wrong’ management. We need to ‘craft’ functioning forests which survive the stupid humans. Not preserve dead or overstocked forests. Here is an example of a thinning project I worked on, in the Eldorado National Forest. No old growth was cut, and the harvested trees averaged 15″ in diameter.

      • OK Larry. I will look at your URLs later. But now I would like to comment on ““The conundrum of agenda-driven science in conservation”. I am well aware of that article. It is how those who are truly agenda-driven support their widespread and damaging thin and burn policies. By attacking independent scientists whose research arrive at differing ecological conclusions. Just discount them with a wave of your keyboard, and done.

        I would like to share a response to the “agenda-driven science” attack on Hansen et al, specifically Webpanel 1 about the Hanson, Bond and Lee. And I will comment no further on this topic.

        —This article came out in the context of a long standing scientific controversy re spotted owl post-fire research between US Forest Service funded scientists MZ Peery, Gavin Jones and others, and the independent team of Derek Lee, Monica Bond and Chad Hanson.

        —Hanson et al also have stated that Peery et al, attacked them personally because they have not been able to successfully debate them on the scientific evidence.

        –Peery et al acted contrary to long-standing scientific norms by personally attacking other scientists in a scientific journal, and the journal did not conduct even a bare minimum due diligence or fact checking, and never contacted Hanson et al before publishing this personal attack.

        — Peery et al claimed that Hanson et al have a conflict of interest because they occasionally write expert declarations to inform courts about current science, but Peery et al did not identify or describe a single conflict of interest on the part of Hanson et al. Informing courts about science does not create any conflict; in fact, Peery has written declarations for courts over the years. Also, Peery et al falsely claimed that Hanson is a lawyer who argues his environmental cases in court. Hanson is not a lawyer and has never practiced law. He did attend law school, but then switched to studying ecology.

        –Peery et al falsely claimed that Hanson et al “harassed” two scientists, but provided no basis for this claim. In fact, Hanson et al have stated that they politely and professionally requested that these government-funded scientists provide open scientific access to their spotted owl data, which were publicly funded and gathered on public lands, so that Hanson et al could independently verify their claims. These scientists refused to provide this public data to Hanson et al.

        –Peery et al criticized Hanson et al for having an “agenda” because they believe, like many other scientists, that National Forests should be managed according to scientific evidence and conservation biology principles, not for timber commodities. The “agenda” of Hanson et al is science, that is entirely my experience of Hanson, whereas Peery et al seem to be promoting their own agenda, advocating for commercial logging on our public forests in spotted owl habitat.

        –Peery et al claimed that Hanson et al should have included 4 spotted owl sites with over 80 percent high severity fire but, as Hanson et al (2018) explained, all of the sites with more than 80 percent high severity fire had been extensively postfire logged, so there were no unlogged sites with over 80 percent high severity for comparison. If these 4 sites had been included, it would have simply made the adverse effect of postfire logging even more pronounced in their results.

        –Peery et al claimed that a main indicator of agenda driven science is when scientists mischaracterize studies or omit data, but Peery et al completely mischaracterized several spotted owl studies in their attempt to claim it is high severity fire, not postfire logging, that harms owls. However, one of the studies (Comfort et al 2016) explicitly involved impacts to owls from postfire logging, while another (Rockweit et al 2017) did not acknowledge the occurrence of postfire logging but it was later discovered that the Sims fire sites had been postfire logged. A third, Eyes et al (2017), did not find a statistically significant effect of high severity fire, and the fourth, Ganey et al (2017), found almost entirely neutral or positive effects of high severity fire for spotted owls, where no postfire logging occurred. Further, Peery et al omitted mention of the fact that the most comprehensive meta-analysis of Fire and spotted owls, Lee (2018), found consistent negative impacts of postfire logging, and mostly neutral or positive effects of high severity fire alone.


        • Hanson is clearly non-objective, leaves out important issues, misrepresents/misuses pictures and cannot back up his accusations with evidence that would be admissible in court. He’s not a lawyer but, his wife is. Hanson is not even a competent scientist, in my experience. (I’ve seen one of his botched surveys, where he sampled for live cambium on burned trees at dbh, instead of at stump height.) His desire for “larger and more intense wildfires” is particularly concerning.

          • Larry, again, like the toxin in Washington D.C. that is destroying our democracy, you have latched on to ridicule and ad hominem attacks in lieu of discussing the actual facts, which you never are able to cite apart from your own anecdotal experiences. I would sure love to see you interact with Hanson face to face (instead behind a computer screen) – his command of the research would be enlightening to you, or more likely, irritating.

            • Richard, our democracy is not being destroyed and IMHO there is too much ridicule on both sides of any divide nowadays. We are ready and able to debate Hanson here on TSW or any other public, online, venue where there is time to dig into these questions deeply and have a serious back and forth. Larry’s experience is different from yours or Hanson’s or mine, but I think there’s value to practitioner knowledge. I do think it would be helpful to engage in an open debate/discussion.

            • “Hanson is clearly non-objective, leaves out important issues, misrepresents/misuses pictures and cannot back up his accusations with evidence that would be admissible in court.”

              I stand by these claims, and I would add to that Hanson’s difficulty with reading maps and finding his location on actual parcels of land. Again, his constant claims of illegal Forest Service salvage clearcuts are always devoid of actual facts. If he was telling the truth, surely, he would bring his evidence to court?!?! (He has not)

    • From what I have read, Bradley, Hanson and DellaSala, have a very narrow agenda. They seem to celebrate all forest fires, no matter how many trees are killed, just so there is no logging.

  4. https://www.opb.org/news/article/wildfire-severity-private-public-forests/

    Study: Wildfires Burn More Severely On Private Timber Plantations Than Public Forests

    “The perception for a long time has been that high-biomass forests will burn more severely,” said Harold Zald, forestry researcher at Humboldt State University in Northern California.

    Zald is author of a new paper published in the journal Ecological Applications.

    The checkerboard of ownership allowed Zald and his fellow researchers to compare different variables across property boundaries. He looked at weather during the Douglas Complex, and, not surprisingly, that was the dominant driver of fire severity.

    But they also looked at things like how forest management and tree age affect how severely the wildfire burned.

    And what they found flipped the common narrative.

    “Management and forest age were really important, but oddly enough how much biomass was there before the fire was not important,” Zald said.

    In fact, he found that the private timberland in the Douglas Complex burned 30 percent more severely than the public lands.

    • It is dangerous to extrapolate from one study of one fire in a unique area of private/federal checkerboard.

      From the OBP article:

      University of Washington Tacoma fire researcher Maureen Kennedy said these kinds of studies should be approached with a degree of caution.

      “Each individual fire tells its own story. So a lot of these individual fires you’re going to find different factors in that moment … that are really more about the story of that fire,” she said.

      Zald acknowledges this. He said he probably wouldn’t support extrapolating these findings to the Rockies or even northeast Oregon. But he says parts of the analysis should stand up across different landscapes and regions.

  5. The legacy of past forest management can influence the mosaic of burn damage left in the aftermath of a large wildfire. Several studies have documented the persistent influence of partial harvests and fuel treatments on wildfire effects, (e.g. Finney et al., 2005; Pollet and Omi, 2002; Prichard et al., 2010; Raymond and Peterson, 2005). Equally important, though somewhat less represented in the literature, are studies that quantify the influence of even-aged silvicultural treatments on wildfire effects. Even-age plantations are a common feature of forested landscapes worldwide and there are more than 17 million hectares of conifer plantations in the US alone (FAO, 2005). The available evidence suggests that plantations experience higher levels of canopy damage than surrounding unmanaged forests (Odion et al., 2004; Thompson et al., 2007; Weatherspoon and Skinner, 1995). This is likely attributable to higher stem densities and continuous canopies, which are characteristic features of plantations and can increase vulnerability to crown fire (Kobziar et al., 2009; Stephens and Moghaddas, 2005; Graham et al., 2004).

    Thompson et al 2011. Canopy damage to conifer plantations within a large mixed-severity wildfire varies with stand age. Forest Ecology and Management.


    • Spotted.. my two cents, there are plantations and plantations. Humble reforestation people plant trees which may be overtaken by brush, may just fade out and so on. Some people plant only species that won’t regenerate naturally to help with species diversity. Some people spray herbicides and thin, some people plant and leave the rest up to the Plantation Gods.

      Hence, the concept of a “plantation” is an abstraction. The great thing about abstractions is that you can have endless back and forth with scientific studies or arguments because different people are talking about different things in different places. For the rest of us, we can look around and make our own judgments about the conditions we see.

      • So you’re saying research (and debate about it) is worthless if it wasn’t done on the “conditions we see” in our project area (which would rarely be the case).

        • There’s a middle ground between worthless and The Truth. That’s where research lies. And relevance is a judgment call ..

  6. UPDATE: The 14,500 acre Gold Fire, burning just north of the Hog Fire, has now made it to this nice patch of “forest.” 

  7. Larry. I don’t need your reminder. It’s not only 100% clear to me that this is private industrial timber land, but if anyone reads my original post it is also abundantly clear. Keep in mind, this is what Sierra Pacific Industries says about their ‘management’ of their private lands: “At Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), we use modern forest management techniques to reduce the risk of wildfire without damaging the health of the forest.”

    I’m pretty sure 10 out of 10 forest ecologists would says that SPI falls dramatically short of that claim. Thanks.

    • 10 out of 10 forest ecologist have said very little about SPI forests practices. Probably because they are to busy harassing the FS and BLM.
      This type of forestry is partially the result of reducing federal harvests by 90% because now private timberlands are producing 90% of the volume, from a smaller area.


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