NPR: The Bootleg Fire Gives Scientists An Unexpected Experiment

Great article from July 20, but not news to foresters and tribes: “The Bootleg Fire, The Nation’s Biggest, Gives Scientists An Unexpected Experiment.” Excerpts:

Ecologists in a vast region of wetlands and forest in remote Oregon have spent the past decade thinning young trees and using planned fires to try to restore the thick stands of ponderosa to a less fire-prone state.

This week, the nation’s biggest burning wildfire provided them with an unexpected, real-world experiment. As the massive inferno half the size of Rhode Island roared into the Sycan Marsh Preserve, firefighters said the flames jumped less from treetop to treetop and instead returned to the ground, where they were easier to fight, moved more slowly and did less damage to the overall forest.

The initial assessment suggests that the many years of forest treatments worked, said Pete Caligiuri, Oregon forest program director for The Nature Conservancy, which runs the research at the preserve.

“Generally speaking, what firefighters were reporting on the ground is that when the fire came into those areas that had been thinned … it had significantly less impact.”

The reports were bittersweet for researchers, who still saw nearly 20 square miles of the preserve burn, but the findings add to a growing body of research about how to make wildfires less explosive by thinning undergrowth and allowing forests to burn periodically — as they naturally would do — instead of snuffing out every flame.

Historically, wildfires in Oregon and elsewhere in the U.S. West burned an area as big or bigger than the current blaze more frequently but much less explosively. Periodic, naturally occurring fire cleared out the undergrowth and smaller trees that cause today’s fires to burn so dangerously.

Those fires have not been allowed to burn for the past 120 years, said James Johnston, a researcher with Oregon State University’s College of Forestry who studies historical wildfires.

The area on the northeastern flank of the Bootleg Fire is in the ancestral homeland of the Klamath Tribes, which have used intentional, managed fire to keep the fuel load low and prevent such explosive blazes. Scientists at the Sycan Marsh research station now work with the tribe and draw on that knowledge.

This refutes some of Chad Hanson’s claims in his new book, Smokescreen, which we discussed here:

“Thinned forests often burn more intensely in wildland fires,” [Hanson] writes, “because thinning reduces the windbreak effect of denser forests, allowing winds to sweep through more rapidly, while also reducing the shade of the forest canopy and creating hotter and drier conditions.”

There may be some situations where fuels, weather, and topography can allow this to happen, but “a growing body of research” shows that reducing fuels and thinning works. I’m glad the NPR article mentioned the role of the tribe’s knowledge and practices.

38 thoughts on “NPR: The Bootleg Fire Gives Scientists An Unexpected Experiment”

  1. Isn’t the Sycan Marsh research station on the very far southern end of the Bootleg Fire area? Haven’t the winds been blowing pretty steady and predominantly from the southwest? Doesn’t that mean that the winds have been frequently—and sometimes strongly—blowing the fire away from the Sycan Marsh area?

  2. Of course the forest management was effective; instances all across the West have added to the knowledge of fire intensities in relation to treatments.

    No, it won’t “stop” fires, but it does reduce intensities of flame lengths for firefighters to successfully engage wildfire, while providing less risk to the firefighters themselves.

    Does it work every time? No, and neither does anything else in life, but it is a “tally” in the win column!

    • I don’t know Mathew… All this data about logging and grazing must be fake? Didn’t you read the article? Clearly James Johnston, a researcher with Oregon State University’s College of Forestry who studies historical wildfires made it clear that none of that logging and grazing never happened and the only problem here is 120 years of fire suppression. I mean all you enviros saying we’ve been abusing the landscape when in truth the only problem is we can’t abuse it fast enough to keep it safe from fire. Clearly we’ve not made good use of this land and haven’t done anything on it for 120 years and we need to do more industrial stuff to it to save it.

    • Matthew, how do you reckon the wilderness area that torched fits into this?
      These maps are a good argument for the notion that fires will sometimes overwhelm fuels management treatments if the weather pushes them. Of course, we would be presuming that the logging shown on the map had fuels management as a primary goal, it’s just as likely that landowners we’re more concerned with timber or beef production.
      Where does this lead us to? Because if we presume that it’ll all burn the same, why not allow some logging and grazing to occur? Their impacts are minimal compare to a raging high severity fire, and they provide landowner income as well as jobs. I’m just trying to see where the idea that fuels treatments are ineffective and it’ll all burn the same leads us to. Would it all he better set aside as a preserve left to burn when it will?

      • Hi Cameron,

        I reckon that the forested landscape of the Gearhart Mountain Wilderness is different in some ways from other parts of the Bootleg Fire area. At its highest, the Wilderness area has an elevation that is over 3,000 feet higher than some of the main parts of the Bootleg Fire area. On average, it appears as if the Gearhart Mountain Wilderness is approximately 2,000 feet higher in elevation that the other parts of the Bootleg Fire area. That’s not an insignificant amount in terms of variations of forest types or composition.

        I believe the Gearhart Mountain Wilderness also has a higher component of lodgepole pine that other parts of the Bootleg Fire area. As we all know, lodgepole pine forests typically burn hot, in stand-replacing fires. I also seem to recall that as the fire went through the Gearhart Mountain Wilderness there was a Red Flag warning for extreme fire weather and in the days following the fire weather moderated to some extent. Obviously that has a big impact on how a fire burns.

  3. So someone from the Nature Conservancy who’s entire career depends on promoting the success of thinning to address wildfire prematurely before even the smoke clears says their efforts were a great success despite mop up operations even beginning in earnest, despite long term mortality of surviving trees being way higher in the first few years after the fire, despite the most drought stricken time in all recorded history in the western US…

    What a bunch of BS that NPR and all the pro-logging losers are jumping to conclusions on without the facts. Of course they’ve never let facts get in the way of their delusional chainsaw solutions in the past, so not surprising.

    Trees that look green after a fire have a long ways to go to actually survive that fire especially when the forest was wrongly thinned in ways that ensures dried out sun-exposed soils will no longer sustain the roots of surviving trees with full crowns… But hey, at least the BS from the chainsaw plunder of what little remains of our forests doesn’t ever back down with their dishonesty no matter how premature their timing.

    • Interesting point, I guess some folks might find more credibility in a Yale-educated career forester who has spent the past 11 years working in the region for a conservation group over an internet troll/ poet from 500 miles away that affiliates themself with a terrorist group but that’s just me Deane.

      • Credibility has alot more to do with facts and knowledge as it develops over time than labeling environmentalist views as terrorist views and Yale educated industrial logging careers as that which takes good care of the forest.

        Of course as long as you keep your head buried in the sand your 1970s view of foresters “saving” the forests will never be threatened by intelligent, loving people who care about forest ecosystems and are constantly learning about new research rather than industrial exploitation that’s based on failed sciences that’s been disproven again and again, but continues to succeed through misinformation and public relations.

        • You can both be a forester (someone who realizes the importance of wood products and the benefits they bring to our society) and be ecologically-minded (love the trees and appreciate the complicated interactions within forested ecosystems).

          The TNC continues to acquire land that has been industrially exploited in the past and nurse it back to health using the principles of ecological forest management. If you want to live in a black/white (industrial goons vs. “intelligent” tree-hugging people) world, that sounds like a personal problem.

          • Emily,

            Are you concerned that some members of Congress use wildfires as an excuse to weaken, gut, and undermine America’s bedrock conservation laws? Do you ever speak out about that type of exploitation of public lands?

            Over the past two decades, many new laws and regulations (HFRA, HFI, CFLRP, etc ) and dozens of CE authorities about logging, thinning, post-fire logging, fuel reduction, burning, etc have been established.

            With the exception of funding, do you personally believe that right now the federal government has the policy and regulatory tools needed to “use the principles of ecological forest management?”

            If yes, will you join conservation and forest protection groups in calling out members of Congress who are barking up the wrong tree (so to speak) and using wildfires to push their never-end quest to significantly rein-in and curtail America’s bedrock conservation, public participation, and wildlife protection laws?

            • Exactly Mathew! Couldn’t of said it better myself… So sick of foresters claiming they care about protecting the forest. It’s a total lie that ever last one of them believes in so matter how destructive their logging plans are.

              Just because a wolf dresses up like a sheep doesn’t change what the wolf eats, as well as what it will do politically to anyone who tries to get in the way of their next meal.

  4. The Nature Conservancy? Here’s an article from Lynn Scarlett is Chief External Affairs Officer for The Nature Conservancy and former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, where she served as chair of the Wildland Fire Leadership Council.

    “The wildfire funding breakdown: Time to change the paradigm”


    To significantly reduce wildfire risks in the highest risk areas, new fire scenario modeling from the Forest Service suggests reducing overly dense vegetation on 20 million acres of national forest system lands in the West, 650,000 acres of national forest lands in the East, and 30 million acres of all other lands throughout the country.

    To meet this challenge, our new report, “Wildfire Resilience Funding: Building Blocks for a Paradigm Shift,” identifies funding and priority needs for several federal agencies and programs. These include programs of the U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and others.

    This won’t be easy, but the benefits are many. Increased investments and improved focus on enhanced forest health, forest restoration and other strategies will reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires and result in jobs, economic opportunities and healthier air, lands and waters.

    End excerpt.

    The TNC’s report is here:

    • “reducing dense vegetation” when it comes to the fox in the henhouse has nothing to do with protecting anything other than the gravy train of liquidating and selling the only locked up carbon that survives and stays locked up in stored carbon after a catastrophic wildfire…

      Big huge dead trees still standing have valuable ecological benefits for a century or more if left standing or undisturbed once fallen.

      But we know the agenda here, it’s to do everything they possibly can to turn natural resources into money in their bank account and hundreds of us enviros all over the world get murdered every year when we object…

      If Steve Wilent or one of his friends shows up at my house and blows my brains out with the favorite gun in his collection I’d not be surprised in the slightest. I’ve experienced death threats from his ilk for 30 years and mass murder is the agenda they always represent and I’m grateful I’ve gotten 3 decades of opposition to their killing without them yet realizing the value of killing me.

        • Not sure what Deane’s problems are, but this is the kind of disturbing comment that has given his Earth First! group a bad name. I don’t think a post of this nature belongs in this blog — or in Facebook or Twitter, either. Besides being threatening and hateful, it is also stupid and revealing. Deane should be embarrassed and request that Sharon remove it from the blog — if not from our collective memories — in my opinion.

  5. I agree that this is a great opportunity to compare the differences between actively managed pines and passively managed pine and shrublands. The grasses and shrubs should mostly do fine and even be rejuvenated with this fire, but the different responses to fire between pine thickets and thinnings may become apparent. Aspects and age classes may figure in as well. Should be interesting!

    I cited it in an earlier post, but the references to the Klamath Indians’ ancestral uses of fire in this region is inferred by this observation by Leiberg in 1899: (p. 249) “The forest floor in the [“yellow-pine”] type is covered with a thin layer of humus consisting entirely of decaying pine needles, or it is entirely bare. The latter condition is very prevalent east of the Cascades, where large areas are annually overrun by fire. But even on the western side of the range, where the humus covering is most conspicuous, it is never more than a fraction of an inch in thickness, just enough to supply the requisite material for the spread of forest fires.”

    At some point the so-called “restorationists” need to figure out the particular times and conditions of the areas they want to “restore.” More Leiberg quotes were printed in a discussion posted here in 2013:

    • I do think that operations that use feller-bunchers are required to have a mobile water sprayer, onsite. Loggers have come up with some interesting ‘solutions’ for complying with those (Forest Service) rules. The Forest Service decided that there is an inherent risk of wildfires associated with all types of modern feller-bunchers.

  6. The Fremont-Winema National Forest has a press release describing the effects of fuels treatments on the Bootleg Fire area. Can’t find it online yet, but there’s a PDF copy here:

    Interesting photos of fire effects in treated and untreated areas.

    Also, a Portland TV station has a 3-minute segment on the fire — mentions fuels and beetle-killed trees.

  7. Here’s the ‘control forest’ for experimentation, in Yosemite National Park. “Where are the snags?”, you might ask…,-119.7463349,581m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

    Go ahead and zoom in. Most all of the snags from centuries-old trees burned up, within 30 years. Soils lost all of their organic matter, and even the brush species are having trouble surviving the hot and dry summers on this site that used to support majestic old growth forests.

  8. From Vox: “We must burn the West to save it: How an ancient American Indian practice can reduce the risk of massive wildfires.”

    “If we’re not using fire in the same way that this landscape evolved with over millennia, then we could be creating a situation where we’re creating a further imbalance,” said Don Hankins, an environmental geographer at California State University Chico and a Plains Miwok Indigenous fire practitioner.


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