Sierra Fuels: An Illustration of the Problem

Bill Gabbert at Wildfire Today recently posted a USFS video on the Caldor Fire. This scene from the video illustrates the fuels problem in the Sierras. Larry might tell us if this amount of fuel is as widespread as I think it is. In any case, the image shows so many piles that burning them might kill some of the green trees. If the fuels had been left in place, a prescribed fire might have killed even more trees, and a wildfire might kill all of them. The material could be removed mechanically, but at what cost? There’s no easy or cheap solution.

USFS Caldor Fire Video
Via Wildfire Today, https://tinyurl.com/hubsxwtc

22 thoughts on “Sierra Fuels: An Illustration of the Problem”

  1. i remember in the 80’s we had a silviculture field trip from south Central Oregon to the Lake Tahoe Basin. They were removing material with wheelbarrows because residents didn’t want heavy equipment. They also mentioned paying claims for smoke damage to peoples’ furniture when they did prescribed burning. So they’ve been working on it at least 40 years.

    It’s worth examining whether, for whatever reasons, they get more funding than many other places. And like I’ve pointed out before, they are one of the only areas of the country to have their own fuels CE. Which I don’t think is what did it, but is rather evidence of strong political support which also translates into $. And perhaps also less litigation. Would be an interesting case study.

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  2. I believe this is a picture from several years ago, when the Forest Service lost a season of commercial thinning, due to the Pacific Rivers ‘intervention’ in the Sierra Nevada Framework Amendment. The Forest Service had to divert their timber dollars into hazardous fuels, resulting in projects like this.

    This fuels situation looks accurate. Some areas have a little bit more ground fuels. Some areas have significantly less fuels. The white fir and incense-cedar understories are incredibly flammable, with thick layers of bone-dry fuels on the ground every summer. The bearclover areas are easier to deal with, using prescribed burns without the need for thinning the more scattered thick-barked pines. Those bearclover areas can be burned about every 5 years, in the WUI.

    I think we could triple the amount of ‘thin-from-below’ commercial thinning projects, without longterm impacts. Congress doesn’t want to increase the size of government. I think the Forest Service will soon be outsourcing its sale prep work, if more thinning is approved. The USFS still continues to cling to its habit of hiring inexperienced people right off the street, though, to choose which trees live and die.

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  3. The problem highlighted in this post is a good example of institutional obstinance/lack of adaptation and implementation of low impact practices. I do this kind of work all the time with a wheel barrow sized wood chipper that cuts debris up to 4 inches in diameter.

    By funding a wheelbarrow-size battery pack and electric motorcycles to haul the gear you could very easily run crews on all electric solar power charging systems that doesn’t require slash pile burning and all that debris could be chipped and spread out across the forest floor in a one inch thick layer that will quickly get digested into fertile topsoil rather than pollute the atmosphere.

    But as always, the people who contract to do this work don’t have any funding/interest in retooling to make this work not only go faster, but have as small of a carbon footprint as possible and the cost of their heavy equipment, chainsaws, as well as not limiting thinning prescriptions based on site specifics (wind patterns/alignment of main run of a fire) makes climate change worse not better. Similarly, the innovation in light duty tree limbing equipment is being invested in seriously…

    All these failings add up to an inefficient and antiquated methods, which aren’t sustainable, especially now that we’re realizing how much climate change, not fuels, is driving these fires:

    Prior to 2000, we can explain this fire weather pretty well just using the weather patterns,” Fu said. “But now we can only explain like 30% of what we see with the fire weather.” After ruling out other influences such as changes in vegetation and cloud cover, the researchers concluded the remaining 70% is due to greenhouse gases warming the planet, she said, a figure that some climate modeling suggested could be as high as 88%. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-11-01/climate-change-is-now-main-driver-of-wildfire-weather

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    • Deane, thinning prescriptions I have seen do take into account site specifics, and they are generally done by fuels practitioners. I also think that piles these size are not going to make a “one inch thick” layer. In your mind, would it be OK to make something from the material if they were removed and transferred to a manufacturing facility via solar power?

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      • For starters I’ve been bidding chipping jobs with my wheelbarrow chipper since 2014 so I can look at piles like these and estimate the time it will take to chip, as well as how much material will remain once chipped.

        I so often see pickup trucks loaded with tree pruning and know that most piles in “full” trucks could be chipped up to fill a garbage can or two… So when I say an inch, that makes sense to me. But site specifics are everything so it could go up to two inches. And spreading these chips out to create a thin new layer of future soil is the lowest carbon footprint approach.

        As for the monomaniacal focus on how much material we can remove from every site, that why our forest ecosystems so degraded in the first place these days. It’s like a bank account. Some people spend their whole lives spending hardly any money and building up that bank account to gift others once they pass on. Whereas others live a life of constant spending and constant existential dread of bankruptcy. The former is the view of true conservationists, that latter is the view of the people who are hell bent on destroying the planet while claiming that they’re saving it.

        Or as Forester Roy Keene once explained, “have you ever met a chef that takes the meat and potatoes out of the soup to make it taste better?” Good cooking in the forest is about what forest ecologist Chris Maser says about preserving options. He explains that everytime you cut down a tree that’s one less option future generations have to work with. And the more you preserve those options the better the decision making process will be for people who will be here long after we’re gone.

        What’s more, being able to track the number of stems per acre in a forest could be vastly improved if rather than cutting trees down we simply used special equipment I’m developing that would limb all the branches , so the main stem, which not only has essential habitat value, but also the greatest ability to survive even the hottest fires, would be left standing and hopefully have enough time to rot and retain lots of water before a fire happens. Preserving all stems will give future managers of a forest a much more clear view of how the site has grown in the past versus how its growing lately. The equipment I’m working on is a lighter weight version of this: https://youtu.be/J4kdnXGJzps

        Lastly, as for thinning prescriptions and the crews that do the work… There is a tremendous lack of wildlife, plant and fungus identification skills amongst these low paid workers so they’re constantly destroying opportunities for rare plants, as well as homes for wildlife. And granted, USFS does do cursory flora and fauna surveys prior to the work in order to avoid lawsuits from enviros, but in general this is seperate from what happens in terms of damage caused in areas that the work is not excluded from.

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        • In the Sierra Nevada, both snags and logs dry out completely by mid-summer. They rot incredibly slow, and retain their log shape for decades. (yes, I said decades. There are still old punky cedar logs that were cut in the 50s and 60s, then left on the ground. They are still there, in places that haven’t burned in the interval)

          We have plenty of examples in the southern Sierra Nevada where forests (even giant sequoias) aren’t surviving well at all. Between drought, bark beetles and wildfires, those forests have become more decimated than ever. Even after almost 30 years of a ban on clearcuts and old growth harvesting, those forests are going away.

          The ‘ologists’ I worked with seemed educated and protective enough of their realms, to me. Some of them had Masters and Doctorates, and I respected the hard work I saw them do. I know, because I had to coordinate them all before chainsaws could run.

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    • “After ruling out other influences such as changes in vegetation…”

      Ummm, what about those 100+ million dead trees in California? (Now I am sure we have well over 300 million, after the last 15 years of large and intense wildfires.) That seems like a huge change, and not all of that can be attributed to “climate change”. Drought is enhanced by the sheer numbers of trees per acre, above and beyond the current precipitation levels. I guess one COULD say that if only we had more rain, we could have more trees. (but that would be silly)

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    • Howdy Deane,

      What are your qualifications for these statements, like all the others you make, when you also throw objections to others’ statements? Do you have a MS or PhD? Or are you parroting talking points from the latest newsletter/Reddit post?
      What are your peer reviewed and common sense sources?

      And what are your end goals? To have all lumber come from the southeast of the US, or Canadian old growth, or Amazon?

      How is exporting environmental costs working out for you in your comfy life?

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  4. Some thinning projects make you pile all the limbs. It can be incredibly expensive and labor intensive. I guess it depends in what forest you are in. In coastal Oregon it is not necessary because things decay so fast, even though I have seen it required. I have also seen these piles sit around for years. I imagine they become habitat after awhile. I was reading where martins need piles of brush and such. I once thought of seeing if I could get a contract going around burning them. It was just a passing thought. They have theses machines now that can drive around and mulch all this material up, even just small diameter trees and brush. Of course they aren’t solar powered, yet.

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    • In Sierra Nevada thinning projects. the smaller trees are cut and skidded with the limbs attached, then removed at the landing. I’ve also seen roadside hazard tree projects where removal (from the project area) was the only method for dealing with slash.

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  5. Steve:

    You summarize this photo with the statement and question: “The material could be removed mechanically, but at what cost? There’s no easy or cheap solution.”

    First, it looks as if the residual trees and amount of piled slash were the result of a successful commercial thinning operation. If it wasn’t profitable, then maybe a few more trees should have maybe been removed. If so, then treatment of the slash piles should be seen as a “cost of doing business,” rather than as an extraneous cost.

    If the profit from commercially thinning this stand was/is sufficient enough to cover the costs of using Deane’s chipper/spreader, then that would be easy to budget and create needed local jobs as well as a safer environment for local wildlife and human populations. Another option would be to cover the center of the piles with squares of black plastic and strategically burn later in conjunction with rotting/raining/snowing seasons and conditions.

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    • I salute anyone who comes up with innovative ways of reducing fuel loading. But the scale of the problem is huge — millions of acres in the western US that need not just fuels reduction, but thinning, commercial or otherwise. In many areas, much of the material need to be removed, because there’s too much to burn on site. If there were viable markets for fuel for power generation, that might help pay for some of the work. But even with machines like the “Slashbuster,” which I think grinds fuels for later Rx fire, the scale and costs of the problem are daunting.

      http://www.slashbuster.com/fuels-reduction.htm

      The Slashbuster company has this quote on its web site, but the link they provided to the source is broken, “…the Slashbuster® was more effective and less costly than traditional methods of fuels removal. In one section of the project area traditional manual means of fuel reduction would have cost $1,300 per acre. Using the Slashbuster®, the cost per acre was $460.”

      For anyone interested in getting into the numbers, take a look at “Wildfire fuel reduction cost analysis: Statistical modeling and user model for fire specialists in California,”

      https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/57676

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    • Back in the early 90s, during our big bark beetle era, we required the loggers to put ‘burnable’ waterproof pile coverings in place. At first, we used black plastic, but it became difficult to impossible to remove some of them before burning.

      With an influx of new firefighters/fuels techs, they should be able to GPS every pile or cluster, so that the piles actually get burned. Timber temps used to help with the fall burning, but those days seem to be gone. Some densely-forested units may quickly run out of fuels projects and safe burning units. There will be timber management bottlenecks, in some places.

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      • Larry: After awhile it was learned that only a relatively small square of black plastic was needed to keep the center of the pile dry — heat dried the remainder as the pile was burning. If politics made burning these small amounts of plastic a problem, then maybe waxed cardboard or other “organic” (legally acceptable) waterproofing could be used?

        Again, my thought and experience remain — make fuel disposal, road and trail maintenance, site prep and reforestation a “cost of doing business”; i.e., combine timber sale profits with subsequent forest management costs rather than discrete projects with separate budgets. Why can’t that approach be made to work again?

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        • Maybe because the need for timber sale profits would start driving projects instead of the need to achieve the desired condition for the landscape. (E.g. removing more and bigger trees than are necessary.)

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          • Jon: Or maybe not. Who decides what is “necessary” and what is not so necessary? Right now the “desired conditions” seem to be seas of unmanaged snags following a wildfire. Lots of room for improvements — including clearer communications and common sense planning from a more localized perspective, in my opinion.

          • The owners of national forests decide what is necessary through the public planning process (and we do seem to disagree about the weight to give to a localized perspective). The sideboards for what is necessary for national forest lands are based on ecological integrity, and unmanaged snags probably fit that better than salvage logging in most cases.

          • Jon: You are probably right about our perspectives on how much weight should be given to local voices in regards to management of our public forests. On the other hand, I honestly have no idea what “ecological integrity” is, or why it is “necessary” for our national forests. This sounds more like a concept looking for a lawyer to me, rather than any kind of “sideboard” to the management of our public lands. What am I missing?

          • It seems to me that some tie “ecological integrity” to a lack of human impacts. There is a desire, in some people, to return to a pre-human landscape, in a human-dominated world. It seems ludicrous, to me, to push for that fantasy, on a widespread basis.

          • Ecological integrity is necessary because it is the law. Every forest plan must provide for plant and animal diversity in accordance with NFMA, and that means in accordance with the 2012 Planning Rule, which requires ecological integrity as an indicator of sustainable ecological conditions. Which is based in large degree on the conditions that provided historic plant and animal diversity. Maybe this is where we left off 8 years ago (the Planning Handbook is now final, but I don’t think it changed much from what we were discussing here): https://forestpolicypub.com/2013/05/09/warning-fuzzy-concept-in-regulation-ecological-integrity-iv-after-the-and/

          • Jon: Thanks for the link! I think you are right about not much changing on this since last discussed in detail. I appreciate Sharon pointing out at that time that “ecological integrity” seemed to be “fuzzy words” beneficial to lawyers and modelers. You are right. Not much has changed.

        • My guess is that a fellow employee complained about the burning of thousands of relatively large pieces of plastic, especially on landing piles. We did remove most of those plastic pile coverings. Almost every corner of the Ranger District had salvage logging, from the bark beetles. The next year, alternatives were found that were effective and burnable.

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