Do Fire-Killed Trees Fall in the Forest?

Well, of course. I was thinking about our discussions of post-fire hazard tree cutting as I was looking at the maps and photos of the Cedar Creek Fire in the central Oregon Cascades, which blew up on Friday and over the weekend to 18K acres. It ran north along the west side of Waldo Lake, a vert popular recreation area. North of the lake is the area burned by the 1996 Charlton Fire, which burned 10,000 acres on the north shore, mostly in the Waldo Lake Wilderness (the Pacific Crest Trail runs though it). The Cedar Creek Fire burned well into the older fire scar. This image from Google Earth Pro — 2016 imagery — shows a portion of the newly re-burned area in the wilderness, near a small lake. The image is interesting because it shows how little timber has returned — no restoration was done, since it’s a wilderness area. It also shows many downed trees (as well as the shadows of those still standing). Many of those downed trees probably stood for years, but of course over time they weakened and fell. This scene is typical of the Charlton Fire burn area. Dead trees do fall, which is one reason to cut them before they fall onto roads, power lines, and so on.

40 thoughts on “Do Fire-Killed Trees Fall in the Forest?”

  1. As always, hundreds of millions of years of forest evolution without human intervention is seen by money-making ego-tripping humans with chainsaws as systems failure.

    As in short-lived narrow minded thinking that wants to turn the whole planet into a monocrop of fast growing tree farms feels threatened when we actually let nature do what’s it’s been doing so well long before humans ever existed.

    If you could take a picture identical to this picture every year for several hundred years and play it like a time-lapsed movie you would see growth rates and tree diversity being more impressive in areas where large woody debris is most abundant because standing dead trees precipitate soil building debris in each gust of wind for decades and fallen trees provide nurse logs for vegetation that grows better in rotten wood than soil.

    But we know the routine here on SmokeyWire. It’s all xenophobic hate all the time for natural processes that regrow forest diversity. As if nature regrowing is akin to doing nothing and the only value of the land is in humans “doing something,” which on SmokeyWire usually means means stripping the landscape down to bare ground where nothing lives and planting a tree farm no matter how badly that destroys the long term potential of soil health and ecological diversity.

    In all honesty, one of the best things about climate change’s massive increase in wildfire destruction is that all the tree farmers are gonna go broke and will no longer invest in replanting because there’s no way you can keep fire from destroying your crop for 4 decades prior to harvest.

    What’s even better is 1 out of every 4 acres of forest land in California has already burned in a recent fires (1 in 8 acres of all vegetation types) and all the dishonest claims of “fire suppression” won’t be able to sit in the driver seat BSing us about why they need to create more permanent deforestation in the name of “responsible management.’

    • Deane, the FS will invest in planting, because it’s been told to by Congress and the Admin. Do you mean they are “tree farmers”? Not sure, but they don’t have to make a buck to do things.

      I also see a dichotomy between “climate change’s massive increase in destruction” and the fact that we have more (necessary in my view) prescribed and managed fires that sometimes get out of control. It seems as if a fire gets out of control it’s due to climate change, and if it’s a managed burn that does good things it’s not due to climate change. Which sounds a bit like “everything bad that happens is due to climate change, and everything good that happens is due to good management”. Hmm.

    • You nailed the modern forest crop mindset and offended all who deserve it. Of course, the excuses for endless population/economic growth go beyond just forestry.

      I mostly gave up on standard “conservation” after Green credentials required supporting vast wind power sprawl and countless new roads to haul in those eyesores and maintain them. See the close call with Steens Wind (power was slated for California). They’ll try again someday. The main reason we didn’t see Big Wind expand decades earlier was fossil fuels carrying the economy, not yet considered a threat to civilization itself.

      People reveal their “us first, nature last” motives when circumstances force a choice. Very few really respect unfettered nature.

      • Well, feel free to create an online petition to tell the lumber mills that you don’t like how they manage their own lands. Yet another example of eco-‘hopes and prayers’. If you don’t want the Forest Service to thin out smaller trees, then hire a lawyer and sue. Put your money where your mouth is. We’ll be waiting for actual evidence to be presented, instead of blather.

        Additionally, good luck with getting humans to stop reproducing, too. I’ll support you on that one.

  2. Thanks for brining this up. I have also noticed the area you are referring to on aerial photos, and for the life of me do not understand what is going on there. There’s no place else in the mountain range like it. Is there an edaphic issue going on there? If anyone knows, please share. Other fire scars that old don’t seem to show the same results. Maybe I am wrong, but I cannot imagine it’s simply a seed source issue after all this time. Is there some sort of soil issue there?

  3. My father was born on a ranch three miles south of Fort Rock. This morning I was reading a book on the two decade period of homesteading in the desert. There was a photo of a family who had ridden horses and one mule west to the Cascade Summit to pick huckleberries in the Taylor Burn, circa 1910. Same area as Waldo Lake.

    My favorite memory of that area is Bill Clinton running for his second term. A North Santiam timber outfit had bought a fire salvage sale of true fir and hemlock, to cut Japanese dimension lumber. It was quickly declining in quality. If I remember, it was Warner Creek or Ridge just north of highway 58 and southwest of Cedar fire area, up the Eagle Crest USFS road.

    The timber sale buyer and owner had been subject to the infamous North Santiam log scaling conspiracy outcomes. Settled for a considerable fine. A million bucks or more. No admission of guilt. Cheaper to settle than pay lawyers. Environmentalists were protesting his attempts to log the sale. President Clinton intervened. Timber purchaser held out. Executive Office building installed a direct line to his Santiam Canyon office for private line negotiations. Clinton was behind in the polls. Needed a win. Timber buyer was not caving….. Until he agreed to sell his interests in the sale back to the US Govt. He would not agree to settle unless he had his timber sale purchaser deposit returned, his bonding costs paid, his fine plus interest of his scaling conspiracy damage settlement paid to him, and a profit he was going to lose on the lumber he was going to recover from the USFS STATED timber volume of a scaled recovery sale of burned, dead, fast rotting white woods three or more years removed from the timber being fire killed. The Clinton White House agreed. Campaign victory over mean loggers.

    I only found out about it from a name now forgotten, retired USFS person a few years after them retiring from USFS. All I could do was laugh. Hard and long. Amazing what power can do. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. I never saw a document. Only words from a disgusted retired District Ranger, later I believe Forest Supervisor, and a stint in the Chiefs office after Dale Robertson was forced out and J.W. Thomas became the first big game biologist and first purely political appointment to the Chief’s office until sort of recently, like in this century. More boxes for POTUS to fill with woke recognition of how terrible a nation we live in and appointing a painter’s palette of persons who portray a pre ordained class photograph of Ideal Public High School, a mythical place none have found, but all a fictitious reality today. If you are pretty enough to be in the class photo, fogging a mirror is the other requirement. Fogging is universal. Subjective “pretty” is purely in the eye of the Beholder in Chief, Executive Hair Sniffer, in a city where “objective” is a Mad Hatter word without meaning. Trust, but verify.

      • Larry, my point was the use of a single photo to make a larger point. Of course trees fall in the woods and of course it can take a long time for trees to move back into a large burned area. Really, it comes down to goals (based on values) as to what humans want to accomplish. I agree cutting trees along a roadway prevents them from falling in the road. And I agree that can even save someone’s life – I lost two friends (one was my wife’s best friend) – when an old ponderosa pine fell right on their windshield while they were traveling 65 mph on US Hwy 160 east of Pagosa Springs, CO. To me, the argument isn’t about whether trees fall in the woods and on roads, and how long it takes for trees to naturally revegetate an area, it is about the goals – sometimes competing goals – for managing an area. Let’s face it, there are people who seem to believe that national forests should be treated like one big wilderness area. Personally, I don’t agree with that view.

  4. Hello Steve,
    I’m very familiar with the Waldo Lake Basin. I’ve fished, hiked and hunted throughout the Basin for 40+ years. The Charlton Fire of 1996 burned very hot in a area of mostly Hemlock with a mix of pine and a few firs. I grew up to the west of Waldo in Oakridge. OR. I’ve lived about 15 miles SE near Crescent Lake since retiring in 2015. I just received a alert that Level 3 Evacuation is being issued for the McFarland Lake and Cultus Lake Resort area. I drove a few minutes from my home around 6:00 tonight to take a look at the Cedar Creek Fire from the Davis Lake area. My wife was a campground host at Davis Lake when it burned 26,000 acres of Ponderosa and Pine in short order. My wife and son as well as others in the Two Campgrounds on Davis narrowly escape that Fire storm. East winds are predicted for Friday and Saturday on the Cedar Creek Fire. The column was definitely headed NE when I took photos this evening. Cultus Lake borders the popular Three Sisters Wilderness.
    I predicted exactly what has happened with the hands off wilderness and MIST Fire fighting er “management” of this fire. Everyday it burned as a low intensity and creeping ground fire the odds increased for a combination of low humidity, hear and wind to all of this dead and decadent fuel.
    I hate to witness this scenario repeatedly. I fought fire on a USFS crew in 1977, it sure was a different agency back then. In my opinion it way past time to reform hoe fires are fought especially in wilderness. And it’s way overdue to reform NEPA, EAJA and ESA. Until those three acts are reformed we will continue to see this insane amount of mega fires annually. It’s very sad to see more and more beautiful places incinerated.

  5. I agree Steve; a chainsaw is the best solution to every problem in the forest!
    Minor correction though; TREES return to a burned forest.
    They’re not timber until some timber beast takes a hungry look at them!
    I worked with lots of USFS timber beasts when I was on the Gifford Pinchot NF in late 70’s – mid 80’s. They were cutting 90 million BF on our Ranger District each year.
    Lots of trucks full with only 3 large, old growth logs! Made me ashamed to be a forester!

    • Andy, I think if you took a stand of say, LPP (without newly created openings) and asked the question “are they more likely to fall if dead from MPB or still alive?” I think the answer would be “when they’re dead”. Perhaps I am thinking site-specifically and you are talking at a broader scale?

      • You might be surprised how many lodgepole pine fall over while young: “Lodgepole pine often regenerates overabundantly after wildfire. Stocking levels as high as 500,000 stems per acre have been reported in young stands by Smithers (1957) and even as many as 100,000 living stems per acre have been reported in a 70-year-old stand (Mason 1915). Under these conditions competition is severe. Horton (1956) reported a dominant height of only 4 feet in one dense 50-year-old lodgepole pine stand. Indeed, it is unlikely that stands of more than 2,000 stems per acre at 90 years of age will yield a merchantable volume.”

        What happened to all those thousands of seedlings/acre? Many fell over in windstorms, which is an under-appreciated source of tree mortality. The 1962 Columbus Day storm felled about 11-15 billion board feet of live trees in the Pacific Coast states (on the order of 10’s of millions of trees). Like forest fires, in which 1% of ignitions account for 95% of acres burned, I think tree fall, too, is heavily weighted toward rare high-intensity wind and snow events, which fell predominately live trees.

        Tree fall in the eastern states is also heavily weighted toward wind events, i.e., hurricanes and tornadoes, which fell primarily live trees.

        • Your argument seems to be “more live trees than dead trees fall in general” but that doesn’t change the specific question “dead trees near roads are likely to fall in the next 20 years and there is some chance they will fall on roads.”

          • So what? Live trees near roads are likely to fall in the next 20 years and there is some chance they will fall on roads, too. Does that mean we cut all trees?

            That was the position taken by plaintiffs in a Washington State lawsuit against the Forest Service when a live, old-growth Douglas-fir fell during a windstorm across the Mather Memorial Parkway — a scenic drive managed for its beauty and as a late-successional reserve. The tree hit a traveling pick-up killing its occupants. Tragic. The court absolved the Forest Service of any financial liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

            • Live trees do fall, of course. I’ve had one hit my house and another came very close. They had root disease. I cut two large DFs this year, because the were dying of the same disease. But with fire-killed trees, we know they’ll likely fall in the decade or two after they die. Cutting them along roads, power lines, etc., is best done while they are relatively sound. And sometimes the logs can be sold or used for other purposes – soil stabilization, wildfire habitat. In my area, many charred logs were placed in streams to enhance fish habitat.

            • I don’t think anyone’s saying we should cut “all” trees. Just trees that “are possible” to fall on a road in the next 20 years. To me those details of what constitutes “possible” are best left to “tree falling” experts.

    • Andy: You are correct when referencing the Columbus Day Storm, and wrong when considering the Labor Day Fires. Also, my crews and I cut many snags remaining from the 1868 Yaquina Burn in Lincoln County that were still standing after more than 100 years. The current Cedar Creek Fire in central Oregon just reburned much or all of the 10,000-acre 1996 Charlton Fire — photos from last year seem to indicate a fair amount of “natural” seeding over the past 25 years and massive amounts of ground fuels from fallen snags. These fell when dead, too. East winds predicted for today and tomorrow will also result in mortality and falling trees — dead or alive, now or later.

  6. Wow, quite the array of discussions, some were even on topic! If the theme was (I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I can carve a turkey 🤣) natural processes of restoration within Wilderness, what would one expect? It’ll take hundreds of years to bring so called (diversity) back on the land. If FS policy doesn’t change it will take thousands of years!

    The story of being ashamed to be a forester? I was in Region 6 in the late ‘70’s & early 80’s, I didn’t like what I was seeing so I changed our timber program to “do the right thing”, as much as I could on the Eastside. Starting out in the mid-70’s as a reforestation forester, Region 6 done an outstanding job of reforesting burns and timber sales. Then, the smart folks got to involved and we went to natural regeneration. And that’s when it all went to hell!

    Also, tree farms? Really? I guess o get hot under the collar because everything is soooo specific to California, or the West Cost. Life exists elsewhere! A tree farm is mostly on private lands, and I can guarantee most of them won’t burn, and profits are being made! I’ve worked as a consulting forester in the southeast, and am proud of what is happening there.

    A large fire I helped reforest in Oregon is now ready for thinning! A large fire in Arizona (substitute Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota) is still a mess of snags, brush and barren soil; well over a million acres. We no longer “care for the land”, and do a piss-poor job of “serving people”!

    • Yes, the formal “tree farm” program is primarily on private land with their green and white signs.

      However, the USFS is in the Dept. of Agriculture in part because we see trees as a crop; therefore tree farming. I got my BS in Forest Mgmt. at the Univ. of Maine; at the time, the School of Forest Resources was within the College of Agriculture – Again the connection to growing trees as a crop!
      Some group may have claimed “Tree Farm” as a program name but you can’t deny that the USFS is largely in the tree growing business just like farmers grow corn, wheat and other crops.

      Yes, I was somewhat ashamed to be a forester in R6 in the early 1980’s; I worked in the Other Resources Dept. on a Ranger District and pushed back against the timber steamroller! Do you remember having Other Resource Assistants as part of a Ranger’s management team on a District?
      Everything except the timber related functions was tossed into one department and labelled “Other Resources!” Another example of timber and tree growing as the dominant mindset within the agency. At that time if you aspired to become a District Ranger you were required to go through some timber related position; the Deputy Forest Supervisor on the GPNF told me that point blank.

      • Yes, the FS is a conservation Agency, not a preservation Agency. Timber is one of the “big 5” of resources to manage. We cut trees, we put trees back! New Forest Plans assign “suitable acres” for timber production, we need to utilize those acres! Is it a crop? Only if you/we want to regenerate/reforest timber stands, the need be it through fire or cutting timber!

        DR in Region 6 at that time and a timber manager/beast/program lead? Sure enough! ORA’s? Yes, ought to still have them instead of too many do-gooders!

        • Your true colors are showing Jim! If you dismiss fish and wildlife bios and other specialists as “do-gooders” that means you’re not only a timber beast but are more than likely a dinosaur too! Foresters are NOT the kings!

          Do you also think women in the agency should still only be in the secretarial pool or business mgmt.?
          Sharon, who coordinates this website, may be quite interested to hear your views on women in the FS.

          Perhaps you knew a timber beast I used to tangle with; Bill Heckel (sp?) was TMA on what was then the Wind River RD on the GPNF (mid 70’s to late 80’s). I think you and Bill were cut from the same cloth!

          I’ve been working for or partnering with the USFS since 1973 in three different Regions and 4 NF’s so I’ve seen the good, bad and ugly. I’m very glad there are fewer people with your views in the agency now. Do you remember the Bob Dylan lyrics? “…The times they are a changin’ ” Time to change Jim; I’m 70 and I’m still evolving and trying to stay up to date. Try it; you might like it!

          • No true colors here, I just believe timber is a much a priority as Wilderness! Same for range, Wildlife, water and recreation!

            Don’t put your assumptions on me and color my history, you have no idea what you are talking about! ORA’s? Would be good to serve as a staff officer/supervisor (RDMA) for all the other “ologists” and support personnel to a district. Zoning works in that capacity.

            You may be 70 but you still have lots to learn on the histories – both good and bad, public trust and professionalism of the outfit! Never heard of the person you mentioned, never of you either…..

            You want to pick a fight, go right ahead, you better bring your lunch!

            • Just because you were a DR doesn’t mean you have the market cornered on the history of the outfit! Many of us know about parts of the FS history; you have your perspective and I have mine. Mine includes what I learned from colleagues and friends who became Forest Sups, Regional Directors and an R6 Regional Forester.
              R6 had lots of employees in the 70’s-80’s so no surprise you didn’t know Bill Heckel.
              I’d be happy to bring my lunch but I don’t think you’d listen.
              I was simply pointing out that some of your views seem to be rather outdated.
              Public Trust was shot many years ago in part due to the timber mgmt. practices that you and your pals implemented.
              Goodbye Jim.

              • I was a Forest Sup, and an RPD; I am third generation FS, my grandpa started in 1929. I care for all the resources equally, as I do people. Too bad you remain bitter after all these years, I’ll pray for your ability to persevere!

                Being from the South, I’ll close with “Bless Your Heart”!

        • Actually, forest plans, in accordance with NFMA, “identify lands … that are not suited for timber production.” You can call the remaining lands “suitable,” but the decision to actually manage them for timber production is different, and how those lands will be “utilized” needs to be spelled out in a forest plan for those management areas where timber production is a purpose. (What type of fuels/fire management would be consistent with timber production?)

          • The ASQ is derived from suitable acres, that’s a start. Also, fuels/fire decisions in WUI is certainly a portion of a timber management plan, why wouldn’t it?

            • ASQ is a ceiling (or was, before the 2012 Planning Rule got rid of it).

              I’m just wondering how fire is managed in plantations or other areas where the goal is to harvest the trees before they burn. (And how that comports with ecological sustainability.)

              • Jon, our 2015 Plan on the A-S was a “crosswalk” Plan incorporating both the old and 2012 Rules. We still had the ASQ, and I distinctly remember chatting with the Undersecretary on “suitability” for timber production (among many other Plan components). I know that Plan was a mix, incorporating portions of the 2012 Plan but I bet there are several out there that did the same. That Forest had been in Plan development for 12 years; time to get off the pot, so to speak….

                As for plantations, I have to go back to the south; Ouachita NF. There, we burned some plantations prior to marking (thinning), while others were burned post logging. We had a relatively new Plan (2005) that was all about ecological restoration to fire-adapted ecosystems. Red Cockaded woodpecker drove many prescriptions toward open pine stands, with return fire intervals of six years or so. We also engaged in growing season burns, as directed for that Plan component.

                Like I’ve said, most of the time, weather and fuels allowed us to “thread the needle” on fire response and stand benefits, something that just won’t happen out West! We lost some trees; I believe 5 – 8% mortality was the maximum standard, and we held “on the ground” after action reviews on a subset of prescribed fire actions to see if objectives were met. Most of our burns were hazard reduction burns, averaging 5,000 acres each. Other than shutting down an air base due to smoke, we had very little negative effects from this type of management activity. While I was there, we hit 150,000 acres burned/year, out of 1.8 million acres.

                It’s a different world in Regions 8 and 9…..

              • I don’t know where my post went, so I’ll try again; I’ve never worked under a 2012 Plan, but the one signed in 2015 (A-S) was both an ‘82 and 2012 model. It has timber suitability and ASQ. The Ouachita was a 2005, the Black Hills and PSICC were ancient!

                Plantations (South) can be burned before marking and after logging, just depends on the objectives. We also burned dormant and growing season to try and move toward fire-adapted shortleaf pine. The Ouachita burned about 150,000 acres/year, out of 1.8 million acres. As I’ve said before, it is a different world in Regions 8 and 9!


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