Megafires and spotted owls

An RMRS paper published last month, “Megafire causes persistent loss of an old-forest species,” finds that “The negative effects of megafires on spotted owls are not ephemeral, but instead are likely to be enduring.”

Key Findings

  • Extensive severe fire within spotted owl territories resulted in both immediate territory abandonment and prolonged lack of re-colonization by owls six years post-fire.
  • Each additional 10 hectares of severe fire decreased the likelihood that owls would persist in a territory by 7.8% and decreased the likelihood a territory would be recolonized post-fire by 8.3%.
  • Owl territories that experienced a greater mix of burn intensities (or high “pyrodiversity”) tended to persist after the fire.
  • Salvage logging did not explain variation in post-fire persistence or recolonization; effects to owls could only be attributed to severe fire extent and pyrodiversity.
  • Given the severe and persistent impacts of the King Fire on spotted owls, our work suggests that fuels reduction that limits megafires could benefit this species.

FWIW, Chad Hanson’s work in mentioned:

“In some cases, scientists have debated whether it is the disturbance itself (e.g., fire) or the subsequent management activities (e.g., salvage logging) that has caused estimated effects on sensitive wildlife species such as spotted owls (Hanson, Bond, & Lee, 2018; Jones et al., 2019). It is often the case that fire and salvage effects are confounded and thus cannot easily be separated (Clark, Anthony, & Andrews, 2013; Lee, Bond, & Siegel, 2012). In our study, we were able to separate these two effects and we unequivocally determined that severe fire, and not salvage logging, was correlated with the observed local declines in spotted owl site occupancy. We, thus, reject the hypothesis that salvage logging drove or even contributed to the observed post-fire decline. Given that both severe fire and salvage logging were included as competing covariates, the salvage effects were uninformative across all scales.”

20 thoughts on “Megafires and spotted owls”

  1. Another publication with management recommendations that do not follow logically from the research results. The authors say “our work suggests that fuels reduction that limits megafires could benefit this species.” This recommendation makes no sense given that the study was about the effects of wildfire and salvage; not about the effects of fuel reduction. Their research does not account for the high probability that fuel reduction logging in suitable spotted owl habitat would degrade habitat values, nor does it consider the low probability that fuel reduction would encounter wildfire (and have a chance to favorably modify fire behavior) during the brief period before fuels regrow. How does this get through peer review?

    • And, HOW MANY actual spotted owl nests were burned to a crisp in this summer’s wildfires? You might want to check those odds again.

      (I still find it annoying that some people don’t differentiate between nesting habitats and foraging habitats. They just lump them both together.)

    • 2nd – there is a suite of researchers who use tenuous results and dubious methodologies and poor assumptions, to make vast, wide ranging recommendations against any and all management or intervention anywhere, ever.
      Hint: They are not the researchers who you just accused of being published here by faulty peer review. In fact, LBH and DellaSala are the ones who often publish in highly questionable journals, under the guise of open-source and free to read papers. Perhaps you should research how those journals operate their “peer review”. Such as…if in two weeks, reviewers have not finished a review, a paper will automatically be published as is.

      Not once have you ever commented on those short fallings in these individuals research. In fact, this comment paints you as another person with an agenda, masquerading behind the idea of following the science (when it is convenient and helps push your agenda and beliefs)

    • The September 2021 edition of the Journal of Forestry has a relevant peer-reviewed paper by 12 authors, “Pyrosilviculture Needed for Landscape Resilience of Dry Western United States Forests.” Open access:


      A significant increase in treatment pace and scale is needed to restore dry western US forest resilience owing to increasingly frequent and severe wildfire and drought. We propose a pyrosilviculture approach to directly increase large-scale fire use and modify current thinning treatments to optimize future fire incorporation. Recommendations include leveraging wildfire’s “treatment” in areas burned at low and moderate severity with subsequent pyrosilviculture management, identifying managed wildfire zones, and facilitating and financing prescribed fire with “anchor,” “ecosystem asset,” and “revenue” focused thinning treatments. Pyrosilviculture would also expand prescribed-burn and managed-wildfire objectives to include reducing stand density, increasing forest heterogeneity, and selecting for tree species and phenotypes better adapted to changing climate and disturbance regimes. The potential benefits and limitations of this approach are discussed. Fire is inevitable in dry western US forests and pyrosilviculture focuses on proactively shifting more of that fire into managed large-scale burns needed to restore ecosystem resilience.

  2. 2nd.. I don’t get this… “nor does it consider the low probability that fuel reduction would encounter wildfire (and have a chance to favorably modify fire behavior) during the brief period before fuels regrow. ” all summer we’ve been hearing of wildfires encountering fuel reduction efforts.. how can you say that it’s “low probability” when observations show otherwise?

    • FWIW, An article in The Hill, “Battle of the giants: Why saving giant sequoia isn’t just about climate change,” is refreshing in that it points out that forest management is a factor. It’s by Alexis Bernal, “a research assistant in University of California, Berkeley’s Stephens Lab where her most recent research looks at management impacts on giant sequoia mortality from the Castle Fire.”

      “But for scientists that study wildfires, we know that climate change isn’t the only monster in this battle to save giant sequoia. Our current approach to forest management is the other beast lurking in the shadows and its effects can be more insidious than climate change. That’s because it’s a problem that we’ve created for ourselves but seem to lack the courage to address.”


      “Our willingness to minimize forest management when addressing California’s wildfire problem will ultimately limit our ability to protect sequoia groves, regardless of how we deal with climate change. I am not denying that climate change has an impact — climate is a fundamental component of fire behavior. However, climate change should not overshadow the importance that forest management has in this fight.

      The management plan for the national monument was amended in 2012, but its contents were outdated even for its time. By then, an overwhelming amount of research showed that forest thinning could effectively reduce fire behavior. But the U.S. Forest Service still only designated 23 percent of the national monument as areas where they may allow thinning. We now know that this wasn’t enough.

      “The national monument is a prime example of how misguided beliefs of conservation can do more harm than good. So, we keep finding ourselves frantically reacting to wildfires despite decades of research showing us how we can proactively mitigate them. It’s a vicious cycle of gross negligence and we need to end it. But how?

      “Ultimately, the pace and scale at which we manage sequoia groves is failing to keep up with the pace and scale of climate change. We need more thinning and prescribed burning. Unfortunately, doing this in California has been a constant struggle because socio-political barriers hinder us from doing good work….”

      • The options for southern Sierra Nevada forest management have dwindled down to two ideas. One is to go into those forests and reduce the amount of worthless dead trees, over vast acreages, at an impossibly-high cost. The other option is to replant after catastrophic wildfires vaporize those excess fuels, as well as the green trees. There is no ‘good’ option left.

        It will be interesting to see what happens to the giant sequoia groves. Even the League to Save the Redwoods recognized the need to reduce fuels in the sequoia grove they spent 17 million dollars to purchase. Sadly, their efforts weren’t applied promptly. Now, it is a showpiece for what not to do with sequoia groves.

      • Uh, no. We are supposed to believe a paper that simply quantifies questionable assumptions over our own observations, due to the authority of (some) academics? Not likely. Let’s go back to the 10 questions paper, by acknowledged fire scientists.
        Just one example we can think through… due to climate change, fires are becoming larger and increasingly unstoppable. And yet we know that only 2-7.9 (really, 7 (.9?)) percent will hit fuel treatments?

      • Kind of fun playing whack-a-mole with these papers from the same cast of characters. I really don’t get the conspiratory mindset that every academic and on-the-ground practitioner except for a few (Baker, Hanson, DeSalla, etc.) are in the pocket of “Big Timber”. I guess that is just the post truth society we live in now. These folks have again and again been discredited and called out in the literature for dishonest and flawed analysis. It is getting old.

        The paper assumes that treatments are randomly placed: 1.) they aren’t. The paper also bases its conclusions on the amount of fire during the 80s and early 90s. Climate change is real and is having significant impacts on our wildfire seasons. The fire we are seeing now is burning under very different conditions than in the 80s and early 90s. The conclusions in the paper, therefore, are not valid in today’s environment.

  3. In response to Sharon, I think lots of observations objectively reported is worth a lot more than a few made (but not measured) by a single observer with a bias to confirm. (Isn’t that really the point of “science?”)

    Like Patrick, I also questioned the applicability of 20-year-old data in light of the changing climate, but I think it still supports a conclusion that the probability is not large (either that or the climate is changing a lot faster than we think).

      • Larry, I have been trying for some time — with very limited success — to determine the number and extent of “critical habitat” reserves that helped fuel the Labor Day Fires in western Oregon. Between artificial “Wilderness” designations, arbitrary streamside “buffers,” roadless area designations, and ESA “critical habitat” zoning, we have been creating very predictable catastrophic-scale wildfires the past few decades. Compare this with active management strategies (not all good) and wildfire history from the 1950s until 1987. This has zero to do with “climate change” and everything to do with changing management policies, in my opinion and as extensively documented.

  4. High severity fire renders forest unsuitable to spotted owls. Hanson has argued against that, but he doesn’t differentiate the effect of fire severity to territories. He championed the value of burned habitats, which was great, but they are not suitable habitat for species needing canopy cover. These huge fires are adversely affecting large numbers of spotted owls, but not all the same- some burn only a portion of a territory, or at lower severity, which can be fine. While the recommendation to reduce fuels to preserve forested habitat is not proven, it is a common sense solution. The majority of western forests are not occupied by spotted owls or fisher, and can be treated aggressively for fuels; if they are left with minimal treatment, it’s ok- fires don’t start in their territories.

    • I did participate in some very limited thinning within an official CASPO PAC. The unit was about 12 acres, and we had a 15.0 inch diameter limit. Since it was already an old growth stand, there wasn’t very many small trees to cut. I’m not exactly sure that the benefit was worth the costs, but I am sure the impacts were minimal, from an ecological standpoint. The 15 inch diameter limit seemed right, but there just wasn’t that many trees to cut between 10.0 inches and 14.9 inches in diameter. It was part of a large thinning project, so it was paid for with logs from other units.

      • the ecological cost is determined after the fact- did owls continue to breed there? But that sounds like a very small portion, and you’re right, likely a small amount of smaller trees. With outside partners and grants, the FS can take on more fuels and hand-thinning projects in these tricky areas, like PACs and riparian areas, that need treatment but aren’t commercially viable.


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