Background and History
The plantation in the image above burned with one hundred percent mortality in the King Fire, November, 2014, in El Dorado County--a scene that has been repeated across millions of acres of California’s forests in recent years. The structure—age, uniformity, and density—of the typical plantation, or “pines in lines,” is an unnatural configuration that simply adds fuel to the fires when they inevitably come, despite the best intentions of land managers. But it wasn't always this way.
In the main forest belt of California, fires seldom or never sweep from tree to tree in broad all-enveloping sheets .... Here the fires creep from tree to tree, nibbling their way on the needle-strewn ground.... -- John Muir, 1895
Muir’s observation in 1895 illustrates the essential problem with California’s dry mixed conifer forests today: as forests have been radically altered from what they were in 1895, fires frequently do not behave this politely. Fires today are more destructive, with crown fires edging towards the norm.
Forests today in California differ in two fundamental ways from the historical norm: massive alteration of structure and composition, and they are no longer being shaped by the process of regular fire. Fire suppression policy and forest management policies have led to fires that are increasingly destructive, and they are increasing across the state.
Yet it is easy to understand why humans want to put out all the fires when human lives, homes, and businesses are at risk. And the history of how we got here is also the story of the many brave firefighters who gave their lives trying to protect our forests and communities.
It was 1910. Here is expert fire historian Stephen Pyne:
"The Big Blowup is a creation story for the American way of fire. The U.S. Forest Service was barely five years old. It had seen its charismatic chief, Gifford Pinchot, fired in January. The agency endured 78 firefighter deaths as monstrous fires swept over the Northern Rockies; it went nearly a million dollars in debt; and saw its presumption that it could contain fire sucked into the black plumes of the Big Blowup."
"Equally, that same month, August, it suffered a political brouhaha over its policy. A group centered in northern California argued that instead of following European models the proper policy should emulate the American Indian and kindle "light" burns that would keep the woods open, free of insect and disease outbreaks, and, by dampening fuels, free of damaging fires. When Richard Ballinger, the Secretary of the Interior, announced his support for the strategy, the controversy went political, for Ballinger had been Pinchot’s rival and the occasion for his dismissal. The options polarized. You stood with one or the other. You had to light fires or fight fires. The Forest Service elected to fight.” (Read more here).
Despite the agency taking that misguided turn in the road, the number of scientists and foresters that were skeptical about the wisdom of putting out every fire continued to grow over the decades.
“Until around 1970, federal land managers remained obsessed with controlling large fires. But during the 1960s, scientific research increasingly demonstrated the positive role fire played in forest ecology. This led in the early 1970s to a radical change in Forest Service policy—to let fires burn when and where appropriate. It began with allowing natural-caused fires to burn in designated wilderness areas. From this the 'let-burn' policy evolved, though it suffered a setback in the wake of the 1988 Yellowstone fires. Since around 1990, fire suppression efforts and policy have had to take into account exurban sprawl in what is called the wildland-urban interface. Another issue the Forest Service now faces is that fires have grown in size and ferocity over the last 25 years. The fire-fighting budget has grown to about 50 percent of the agency’s entire budget, which limits funds available for land management activities such as land restoration and forest thinning that could aid in fire suppression.”
Learn more about the history of fire suppression policy in the national forests of the US here.
We now understand that California’s ancient forests evolved with frequent fire, both naturally from lightning strikes, and via intentionally lit fires used by Native Americans to maintain vigorous fresh plant growth and provide clearing that improved habitat for wildlife.
Where fire was operating regularly, forest fuel loading was minimal, and forests evolved to be adapted to regular fire return. In the middle elevation forests of California, the mixed conifer zone, fire behaved as John Muir described, and it rarely resulted in the kind of high severity events that we see today--events that are called "uncharacteristic" by fire ecologists because they are out of sync with the history of our forests.
Fire is always variable in its effects, to be sure, resulting in patches of different outcomes. In some locations, fire may burn at high severity resulting in stand “reset” or stand replacement events. This variation contributed to a diverse mosaic of conifer regeneration patterns and stand ages throughout the landscape. Multiple abiotic factors are at play, at all times in the forest landscape: the climate, seasonality, weather, elevation, slope aspect, soils, and disturbance history all have a role in the response to fire at any given location. This was true in the prehistory era, and is even more true today, with additional factors in place having to do with human activities.
In summary, as a result of these two factors—fire suppression coupled with logging and reforestation practices—forests in California today are primarily composed of middle aged trees, too young to be fire resistant, and too dense to survive fire when it comes. Tree plantations planted in dense, homogeneous configurations are like kindling in a conflagration, and they are prone to disease and pest outbreaks. (See ‘”Tree planting programs may do more harm than good” in National Geographic, April 2019).
Over time, without fire, our forests have become overloaded with fuels build-up. Fires have become increasingly large and intense. Climate change with increased average temperatures, drought, and massive beetle-kill are all contributing factors that amplify the current scenario.
But change is clearly happening. The work that needs to be done to make our forests and communities fire resilient is massive. Clearly, fire policy and fire ecology must become integrated. The lack of regular fire has resulted in an ecological and societal crisis not only in our forests, but throughout the state where rural and urban dwellers alike are affected by smoke from unprecedented forest fires. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” is understood now by thousands of California residents living near fire’s reach—in other words, across most of the state.
Yet we know we cannot log our way out of this predicament. [See North et all 2015 in Science]. We must learn to restore a culture at ease with the regular use of fire to restore and maintain landscapes that are fire-adapted, biologically diverse and resilient to stress. This is going to require a lot of resources and a lot of leadership. It is going to take time to build the type of skilled workforce that is needed throughout the state. We are doing our part to make this happen.
Fire ecology is the study of the role that fire plays in the natural ecology of biological ecosystems. In California, fire is essential to virtually every ecological function: plant community succession, plant regeneration, soil function and nutrient cycling, habitat revitalization, insect and disease control, predator-prey dynamics, and biological diversity as a whole are all shaped by a natural fire regime.
Plants and animals that evolved with frequent recurring fire have adapted over time to be able to survive while living with frequent fire. Conifers here developed thick bark that is highly resistant to fire and protects old growth trees from being killed by fire. This feature is particularly evident in the giant sequoia. While it is the largest species of tree on the planet, it grows in environments subject to frequent returning fire, averaging every 5 to 15 years.
Many species of plants are almost completely dependent upon fire for population regeneration. Some conifer species require fire to open their seed cones so that the seeds can be released. The seeds of some species
of Ceanothus may lay dormant in the soil for 300 years or more, until a major fire removes the conifer overstory and triggers buried seeds to come to life and germinate. For wildlife, the benefits of the post-fire environment are substantial. For approximately thirty years after fire, forests in California produce the most abundant resources for the largest number of species.
These benefits, however, are only realized when forests are allowed to grow and develop through a process called natural succession. Natural succession in forests begins in the first season after a fire that has reset the successional clock to zero. The forest grows again, year by year, beginning with a landscape awash with colorful fire-following annual species (like the flower in the image above, Diplacus torreyi) and “stump sprouters” (species that didn’t die in the fire, but are able to regrow adventitious sprouts from their crowns). The seeds of ponderosa pine, a pioneer species, also readily sprout in full sun in the soil enriched by ash and fostered by symbiotic mushroom species that are also adapted to fire.
As the years progress, the conifer species that sprouted from seed in the first few years after fire begin to overtop the shrub community and take their place as the dominant forest plant members. This can take anywhere from thirty to hundreds of years, depending upon local soil quality and other site conditions, including fire return intervals. In addition to the predictable factors that can be measured, there is a great deal of random variation inherent in virtually every biological and abiotic factor that is involved in natural succession. Ultimately, this is the key to the development of biological diversity in the process of evolution.
In California today, the majority of forest stands are a mix of younger trees interspersed with vast swaths of even-aged, uniform, and densely planted trees (called plantations). These lack biological and structural diversity, making them more vulnerable to stressors such as uncharacteristic fire, drought, disease, bark beetle attack, and increased temperatures brought about by our changing climate.
Scientists have determined that maintaining high levels of biodiversity is one of the essential keys for building resilience to climate change that can enable forests to sustain basic ecosystem functions during this time. [See for example, Thompson et al 2009, Forest Resilience, Biodiversity, and Climate Change, Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montreal. Technical Series no. 43].
We also need to recognize the contribution that California’s Native indigenous people made to the development of what we today call “California.” Early settlers and visitors to this region found a landscape teeming with diverse plants and wildlife. They also saw clouds of smoke overhanging the hills and mountains. The first people of California were adept at using fire to manage the environment. Intentional fire was used to improve the quality of plants used for food, fiber, and shelter, and to improve habitat for deer and other animals that were important to native cultures. In this way they kept the forests and woodlands safe from the kind of fire intensities that would result in devastating losses today. The loss of Native California land stewardship has had long lasting negative impacts on the health and condition of our natural resources.
Indigenous cultures throughout the world understood that fire was a necessary factor to reduce vegetation fuel build-up and to regenerate resources. We need to restore a "Living with Fire" California culture and broaden collaborative partnerships.
Read Native Solutions to Big Fires, New York Times, January 29, 2020.
Download “Wildfires and Forest Resilience: the case for ecological forestry in the Sierra Nevada” produced by The Nature Conservancy, 2019.
Watch Restoration in a Fire Forest: The Benefits of Burning on YouTube, by the Northwest Fire Science Consortium.
Fire Policy - State and Federal
We're leading off here with the good news. California's governor and legislature are working to fix the array of problems that must be faced as we transition to a “Living with Fire” culture.
January 8, 2021
California's Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan The Governor’s Forest Management Taskforce has released a comprehensive action plan to reduce wildfire risk for vulnerable communities, improve the health of forests and wildlands and accelerate action to combat climate change. The Task Force and the state’s efforts going forward will be guided by this Action Plan with an overall goal to increase the pace and scale of forest management and wildfire resilience efforts by 2025 and beyond. Download the Action Plan here.
Federal Fire Policy Documents
These documents provide the current direction for fire management required for federal public land managers.
Each federal agency charged with land management has a different history and internal culture relative to fire management.
The National Park Service, a branch of the US Department of Interior, has long demonstrated a wise approach to fire, implementing regular prescribed burning programs over the span of decades, thus ensuring that the forests in our National Parks remain biologically diverse and resilient now and into the future.
Beginning in the late 1800’s and ramping up in the 1950’s with the advancements in logging equipment and log transport, much of California’s old growth and large tree forests were “high-graded” or clear cut and sent to sawmills. Most of the remnant groves in the Sierra Nevada that remain today are in protected national parks--Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Yosemite, and Lassen Volcanic National Parks, and in California’s Roadless Areas--mostly in the high country, where logging is not permitted.
The importance of these last remaining natural forests cannot be underestimated, but these old forest areas will not be sustainable into the future if they become isolated biological islands lacking connectivity across the state.
Landscapes can also become isolated and lose ecological resilience when a significant natural process, like low-and-mixed severity fire, becomes limited, isolated and its ecological role misunderstood by policy makers, land managers and the public. The absence of frequent fire in much of California and the loss of fire resilient, large trees represents the greatest ecological disaster in California’s history. We are also now seeing the socio-cultural ramifications of this ecological tragedy play out in our forested communities and wildlands across the state with increasing wildfire damage and mega-emissions that follow, creating a public health nightmare.
The Forest Service and USDA
The situation is most challenging on federal national forest lands, managed by the US Forest Service under the US Department of Agriculture. The tug-o-war of culture change is very evident among Forest Service land managers, and the political whims of the ever-changing national administration have long been stuck in an outdated management model. This model is based on even-aged silviculture that strives to maximize commercial tree harvest through clearcutting stands of trees, followed by dense replanting. These densely planted tree stands then become prone to drought stress, disease, and bark beetle infestation, and are a significant factor in the loss of native fire resilience in California's forests.
Fire hazard and large-scale dense plantations
There are three pillars in the effort to regain strong sustainability for California’s forests. The first is re-establishment of ecologically significant large tree and old-growth forests; second is re-establishment of historic fire regimes and fire frequency in the wildlands of Californian. The third pillar requires a change in the way that forests are managed after harvest or large-scale fire events. We must heed what fire scientists (Jerry Franklin, Malcolm North, Scott Stephens, Eric Knapp, and others across the West) are saying: we need to re-establish forests like fire matters. Large dense plantations are an ecological anomaly in the fire-prone climate and vegetation of California. This was true long before climate warming added an intense new layer of challenges to attaining fire resilience. Dense, uniform stand structures associated with current reforestation strategies on industrial timber lands, or Forest Service post-fire reforestation, re-installs an unnatural tree-to-tree fire connectivity that rarely existed in the pre-European era.
The problem doesn’t end there. Due to the investment in time and money spent on private or public land creating large-scale plantations, when a fire does occur in proximity to these dense stands of even-aged trees, the call for a massive fire suppression response by the local decision maker is all but guaranteed. The more we replant like we are managing cropland, the higher the likelihood that fire will not be lit or allowed to burn anywhere near these areas, for decades. Restoring fire and plantation tree farms are not a good match. Planting in patterns, locations and densities with fire in the mix is more resilient and is the sensible response to climate change and the increase in uncharacteristic wildfires.
It is past time to move on from the reforestation strategies in the 1976 National Forest Management Act, a well-meaning statute written long before fire science arrived to inform land managers about the trouble that was to come later. While planting back what you harvest sounds reasonable, the era of plantation forestry evolved during the period of all-out warfare against fire on the land. There is no other misunderstanding of the environment we live in that is more significant, in the West. It is also past time to adopt the Reforest for Resilience model in dry western forests (see Malcolm North et al. 2019 in the references below).
When there is a forest fire, it has been standard practice to clear burned forests immediately and replant them. Called salvage logging, this practice significantly interferes with the natural recovery processes of native forests. The disconnect between agriculture and forest ecology couldn’t be clearer. It doesn’t mean all dead tree removal and all planting is all bad. It does mean the agricultural model of cropping trees is an outdated and ecologically inappropriate model that attempts to force a forest ecosystem to be something it isn’t and never was.
Our way out of this situation, in the face of climate change, will require an “all hands on deck” approach, leadership, resources, and most importantly, fundamental change. This leadership at the federal level has been shown by the Forest Service Research Branch-PSW, and some independent thinking foresters and District Rangers, and by former Governor Jerry Brown and his staff at Cal Fire. Current Governor Gavin Newsom, on his first day in office this year, pledged his leadership to protect and restore California's forests and has strengthened the state's commitment to support prescribed burning. It will take collective action to restore fire resiliency and the health of forest lands, on public as well as on private lands.
Smoke Regulation and Policy
Issue: Air Quality, Public Health and Expanding Fire Restoration
The 1970 Federal Clean Air Act and CA Clean Air Act (actually starting in 1967 with the Mulford-Carroll Act) were passed to protect air quality, for the purpose of protecting public health. Multiple amendments such as the 1990 National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) set specific standards for “criteria pollutants” for public health exposure (primary) and public welfare (secondary) exposure. Measured extent and duration of exposures were established for particulate matter (PM) smaller than 2.5 µg (35 µg/m³) and PM 10 (150 µg /m³) averaged over a 3-year period. Particulate matter (in this case, smoke) is a primary component/result of fire in California’s diverse vegetation types.
There is no argument that California’s air pollution problems were (and are) very real and why the Clean Air Act was written and has since been amended to better protect public health and welfare. Unfortunately, there is one very big problem within the reach of the statute regarding natural resource management in fire-associated landscapes. The problem is that when these statutes were written, our society had little to no idea what fire ecology is or the role of fire as a natural ecological process.
Despite decades of fire science research, the Clean Air Act and Regulations (Title 17) remain challenging in terms of getting prescribed fire applications to ecological scales that will limit the amount of uncharacteristic mega-fire emissions. These limits on planned fire work against the very reason the Federal and California Clean Air Acts were written—to protect public health and welfare.
Emissions trade-offs and the recognition that public health and welfare goals will not be met need to translate into effective policy change to allow landscape fire restoration.
Suite of Solutions:
1. The Fire MOU Partnership https://www.sierraforestlegacy.org/CF_ManagingFire/FireMOU.php and an increasingly strong relationship with CARB and certain air districts to expand fire restoration.
2. Support for expanded monitoring, modeling and messaging for local air districts to refine skills, tools and more exact predictive capacity of smoke plumes and impacts.
3. Collaborative fire-supportive messaging (Rx Fire Work Group, Fire MOU Partnership, the California Fire Science Consortium http://www.cafiresci.org/
that frames the honest picture of our options in California—fire where we have some say and fire where we don’t.
4. Need to make “real” (a real accounting of) the emissions trade-offs of not burning at scale.
5. Need to allow frequent multiple day burn windows to build scale (500,000 acres/year is the stated commitment from Federal land managers and State of California).
6. Scientists have argued that today’s fire regime/fire frequency and its associated emissions should be the baseline for considering regulating emissions. Air quality regulation should be applied to emissions outside the historic fire regime for a particular vegetation type and location. Air quality fees charged on a per-acre basis are a disincentive to burning.
For more reading see:
Schweizer, D.W., and R. Cisneros. 2017. Forest fire policy: Change conventional thinking of smoke management to prioritize long-term air quality and public health. Air Quality and Atmospheric Health. 10(1):33-36.
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