Here's how California can use fire to solve its wildfire problem

If California wants to get out in front of its wildfire problem, scientists have some clear but counterintuitive advice: Start more forest fires.

Decades of research shows that lighting fires under safe conditions not only clears out the dead plants and thick underbrush that fuel many severe wildfires, it also restores a natural process that once kept forests healthy and resilient.

It can be tricky to pull off because all fires, whether natural or intentional, are inherently dangerous and smoky. Even so, experts say the benefits far outweigh the risks.

California's overgrown forests came under scrutiny when President Donald Trump blamed them for the state's recent fires and called for more aggressive management.

Experts say the diagnosis was misplaced; the fires in both Paradise and Southern California drew their deadly power from extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change, not from the buildup of dense trees and brush.

Nevertheless, scientists and agree on the importance of reducing flammable fuel in California's vast conifer forests. And they say that fire is the best tool for the job.

"We really have to understand that what's really needed on the landscape is more fire, not less," said Kelly Martin, the fire chief of Yosemite National Park.

Some fires will happen no matter what, scientists say. The question is: Do we want fires we can control, or fires we can't?

—-

Until the 1800s, when settlers flooded into California, many parts of the state experienced far more wildfire than they do today. Natural fires burned unimpeded, and Native Americans lit blazes to reduce future risks and boost the growth of desirable plants, as they had done for thousands of years. The state's ecosystems evolved not just to tolerate burning, but to depend on it.

"California landscapes were really truly born and bred of fire," Martin said.

Then the intervened. After several massive wildfires ripped through the West in the early 1900s, the newly formed U.S. Forest Service began extinguishing flames as quickly as possible. Managers believed that suppressing fires protected both communities and forests, Martin said. And for decades, it did.

But over time, the plan backfired. That was especially true in conifer forests, which used to burn every five to 20 years and grew denser with each missed cycle.

Then came drought, tree-killing beetles and climate change—plus a booming population that kept expanding into forested areas.

Californians are all too familiar with the consequences: catastrophic wildfires that are nearly impossible to contain.

"If you want to really, fully restore the , you have to get fire back in there," said Malcolm North, a research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station in Davis, Calif.

Beyond removing saplings and pine duff, fire creates natural variability in the spacing of trees, he said. It typically leaves denser stands in wetter places and creates gaps in dryer areas that prevent flames from spreading.

"That's one of the features which made forests so resilient to fire and drought," he said.

Fire also plays a critical role in breaking down material on the forest floor and recycling nutrients.

Except near communities, the goal of prescribed burns is not to prevent future fires, but to allow more wildfires to burn safely, North said.

The 2013 Rim fire was a prime example.

It started with a runaway campfire on National Forest land east of Groveland, Calif., and quickly metastasized. But then it spread into nearby Yosemite National Park, where for decades Martin and her predecessors had been lighting prescribed fires and allowing natural ones to burn.

When the Rim fire hit previously treated areas, it suddenly became tamer. It dropped from the canopy back down to the ground, burned less intensely, and didn't require much suppression, Martin said.

The controlled burns also protected staff buildings near the Hodgdon Meadow Campground. "We didn't lose any homes," she said.

—-

Despite its effectiveness, prescribed burning remains vastly underutilized in California and across the West.

"You've got a whole bunch of things which make it difficult," North said.

Like smoke, which is unhealthy to breathe, particularly for those with asthma and other health conditions.

Then there are the lives and property at risk in the roughly 1 percent of fires that escape. In one tragic case, a prescribed fire just west of Denver destroyed about two dozen homes and killed three people.

Such accidents are rare, however, and managers can minimize the public's exposure by lighting fires under favorable weather conditions.

"Yes, there's some risk. Yes, there's some smoke. But what's the trade-off?" said Jeff Kane, a fire ecologist at Humboldt State University.

Some California forests are so clogged with overgrowth that it's unsafe to introduce fire without first pulling out some of the smaller trees and shrubs.

"In many cases, particularly in the Sierra Nevada, 85 percent to 95 percent of the forest is in an extremely explosive condition," North said. Thinning gives managers a toehold.

Outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke endorsed both prescribed burning and thinning in a recent op-ed on CNN advocating for more aggressive forest management. However, he has more often emphasized the need to cut trees, arguing that the additional logging will benefit rural economies.

"Logs typically come out of the forest in one of two ways: they are either harvested as timber to sustainably improve the health and resiliency of the forest (while creating jobs), or they are burned to the ground," he wrote.

But scientists say logging rarely reduces fire risk—unless it helps subsidize the cost of effective thinning.

The large trees that make money for logging companies "are very fire-resistant and they are not contributing to the fire intensity," North said. The real culprits are the shrubs and small trees that serve as "ladder fuels" because they lift flames from the forest floor to the canopy. And these have little commercial value.

North's research found that thinning costs about 3.5 times more than controlled burning and will not, on its own, provide the full ecological benefits of fire or make a dent in the millions of rugged acres that need treatment.

"You cannot thin your way out of the problem," he said.

—-

California has warmed to the idea that it must fight fire with fire.

In 2015, a coalition of state and federal land management agencies, local air quality districts, tribes and nonprofit organizations came together to reduce barriers to prescribed burning. They are working to make controlled burns easier to coordinate and smoke easier to track.

The momentum picked up in May, when Gov. Jerry Brown created a forest management task force to identify windows of opportunity for prescribed burns and streamline the permitting process. In September, Brown signed a bill aimed at expanding the use of prescribed fires by, among other things, creating ways for landowners and agencies to share costs and liability.

"I kind of had to pinch myself," said Craig Thomas, the recently retired conservation director of Sierra Forest Legacy. "I love being in California because we can have that complicated conversation. We need to stop the bad fire and dramatically increase the good fire."

But other hurdles remain, including a lack of firefighters, equipment and funding, according to research by Courtney Schultz, a forest policy expert at Colorado State University. Fire suppression has become such a monumental task that it often occupies all available personnel and funds, leaving nothing left for things like prescribed burning.

The U.S. Forest Service will get some help starting in 2020, thanks to congressional action that will free up funds for forest management.

California has already given the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, money for six crews dedicated solely to prescribed fire. The department also got funds to train prescribed-burn bosses throughout the state.

"We are rebuilding a program that has been dormant for more than a decade," said Thom Porter, Cal Fire's chief of strategic planning.

Both state and federal forest managers hope to ramp up prescribed fires in coming years. And Martin said they have their work cut out for them.

"We are going to have to go big in order to meet these big fires in the future," she said.


Explore further

Controlled burns limited severity of Rim Fire, researchers find

©2018 Los Angeles Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Citation: Here's how California can use fire to solve its wildfire problem (2018, December 24) retrieved 15 July 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2018-12-california-wildfire-problem.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
16 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Dec 25, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Dec 25, 2018
You fucking idiot, he suggested fucking rakes. That's his idea of forest management.

Dec 25, 2018
Well he was right about Finland using mechanical rakes to manage their forests.

You believe everything the lying left shovels your way? Sure. You're too gullible to check yourself. You fucking dumbass.

Dec 25, 2018
He prolly doesn't even know what orders the USFS is given, nor does anyone he's appointed.

Dec 25, 2018
Meh. It's not like this hasn't been said for the last several decades and the Republican't Congresses haven't filibustered it.

Dec 26, 2018
Behold: Otto has the audacity not only to say he believes that Finns go out and rake 75% of the country in order to prevent forest fires, but he also thinks you, and I are stupid enough to believe it too.

Dec 26, 2018
Woodman, Spare That Tree

Woodman
with you axe
go into that forest
with your axe
your chain saw
your tractors
your felling machines
and
LOG
Log, log, and thrice log
spare not one single tree
create humongous fire breaks
humongous fire breaks through these forests
so they can never burn their forests down
and
use the logged wood
to make furniture
to make houses
that
drive the ailing American economy
as
that
my American friends
is
the answer
then these redwoods will grow tall again
and
they will never burn their forests down ever again
then
The air will be fresh and clean again

Dec 29, 2018
Behold: Otto has the audacity not only to say he believes that Finns go out and rake 75% of the country in order to prevent forest fires
I didnt say that. Where'd you get 75%? You think making things up is a good way to win arguments? Of course you do. Your fake media says ok.

Finland
"Younger commercially managed forests are typically thinned out periodically, with some 25−30% of the trees removed during thinning. The increasing demand for wood for bioenergy has created new markets for the trees cut during such thinnings, and for logging residues such as branches and stumps which earlier used to be left in the forest..."
Cont>

Dec 29, 2018
"The four forest residue supply chains:
1. the terrain chipping method: residues chipped inside the forest stand – transported by truck to
the energy plant
2. the chipping at roadside method: forest residues pilled up at the roadside – chipping at the
roadside – transported by truck to the energy plant
3. the bundling method (figure 1): bundling the forest residues inside the forest stand– bundles
pilled along the forest road – bundles transported to the energy plant – chipping at the energy
plant
4. the loose residue method: extract forest residues from the forest stand – forest residues pilled
up along the forest road – transport the forest residues to the power plant - chipping at the energy plan"

-equipt types:
https://www.palle...EALw_wcB

-So fucking gullible-

Dec 29, 2018
Nature's method of managing the forests is fire. If man does not allow nature to take it's course then man must clear the forests. Otherwise there are too many trees per acre and the old sick trees harbor harmful insects. Also, during dry periods more trees fight for less water and the whole forest is sickened. The claim that "climate change" is the problem just highlights the bias of this so called science.

Dec 29, 2018
Part of the fire problem in California is the restrictive laws governing cutting trees and clearing land in residential areas. You need permits galore and must hire professionals in order to get the permits. Thus nothing gets cut and things get overgrown.

Dec 29, 2018
So does California get money for prescribed burns on federal land, or do the Republican'ts get to sweep it under the rug for a few more years and pay for it with emergency funds and run up the deficit some more?

A stitch in time saves nine.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Republican'ts can't govern, among the many other things they can't do, like math.

Dec 29, 2018
Da California and or green groups have filed multiple suits to preserve the forests as wilderness. If the federal government gave them what they wanted for their state who's fault is that?!?!

As my sainted grandmother used to say, "Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.".

Dec 29, 2018
It's federal land.

Maybe you forgot.

And as for maintaining wilderness, looks from this article like fire is a natural thing; it's wildfires that are unnatural, fueled as they are by short-sighted forestry management practices from the 1950s. This causes the fuel to build up, which doesn't happen in a well-managed forest.

Pay me a little now or pay me a lot later. And don't fool yourself later won't come; you can't build up fuel and then whine about it catching fire.

And you avoided the question: where's the money? Because that's gonna come out in court. If you're worried about court when the National Forest Service starts doing their job.

Dec 29, 2018
The problem here is Republican'ts who won't pay attention to scary science that says jebus didn't make the world.

Dec 30, 2018
Da In California it was/is illegal to go into the woods and collect downed trees for firewood. Proper forest management includes harvesting lumber and building roads. These activities were heavily protested and litigated against by both the state and individuals. Now they know the how good intentions can produce horrid results. BTW the science has been known for generations but disregarded for political reasons.

Dec 30, 2018
Also Da, you know as well as I do that if one tries to do anything in theses woods they will find an endangered species who's habitat will be "Harmed" by the project and the courts will stop it.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more