Past Forest Mismanagement Helps Spawn Megafires

Oct 17, 2014

The 2013 Rim Fire burned more than 257,000 areas in the Sierra Nevada region.
Credit Inciweb.org

More frequent and dangerous wildfires like last year's Rim Fire may be inevitable for California. How a fire behaves depends largely on how we manage our forests and lands.

But experts argue that poor decision-making led to forests choked with trees and homes built too close to the threat. In the conclusion of our series “California Burning,” Capital Public Radio reporter Amy Quinton looks at what may be needed to make our forests less prone to megafires in the future.

In 1944, the US Forest Service began one of the longest running advertising campaigns in American history, with the deep iconic voice of Smokey Bear teaching us that “only you can prevent forest fires.” But times have changed.

“The Smokey the Bear concept that only you can prevent wildfire is just not true,” says Malcolm North, researcher for the US Forest Service.

In 1944, the US Forest Service began one of the longest running advertising campaigns in American history, with the deep iconic voice of Smokey Bear teaching us that “only you can prevent forest fires.” But times have changed.

“The Smokey the Bear concept that only you can prevent wildfire is just not true,” says Malcolm North, researcher for the US Forest Service.

“When fire burns under extreme weather conditions, even your best efforts at making a resilient forest are in vain, it still gets vaporized like this around us,” he says.

North says making forests resistant to megafires is not going to be easy. He says the pace for treating the forest either through thinning or prescribed burning is abysmal. Part of the problem is that after 25 years, an area of the forest that’s been treated must be treated again.

"You look at how much is treated currently and how often you need to get in there to maintain it at current pace and scale, two-thirds of the forest you’ll never even get to,” he says.

He and other researchers say less than 20 percent of the Sierra Nevada’s forested landscape is receiving the treatment it needs.

North along with UC Berkeley fire scientist Scott Stephens reached that conclusion in a 2012 study of Forest Service lands. Stephens says it doesn’t bode well for the future.

“That’s what I call a train-wreck,” says Stephens. “If you’re thinking about the forest going forward in a vulnerable condition, and lo and behold they’re going into a condition that’s even warmer and with even more variability and drought, this basically sets it up for even more potential for burning.”

On the west side of Yosemite National Park, Yosemite fire and aviation Chief Kelly Martin points to an area of the forest dense with trees. “As you look out you just see this incredible understory of just thousands of little trees that are growing up under the canopy of some of these larger trees,” says Martin.

Branches of small fir trees are intertwined. You can barely see the forest floor. A deer would have trouble traveling through this area.

“This is what we call ladder fuels. It starts from the bottom. These little trees provide a ladder to the next tree, to the next tree, and then that’s what can create a crown fire and kills the larger overstory trees,” says Martin.

Yosemite has one of the longest records of prescribed burning in California. Martin says the window for prescribed burning is very narrow because of air quality regulations.

“The conflict is smoke and how smoke affects human health and where we want to burn is around communities,” says Martin. “Those communities often have smoke-sensitive people with asthma.”

Air quality regulations often conflict with forest restoration, even though one major wildfire can create far worse air quality than periodic prescribed fires. 

Some areas of the forest are so dense with trees that prescribed burning isn’t even an option.

“It would be great some day to actually see fire do the beneficial work that it did for eons in these mountains, but these are not natural conditions,” says Jim Branham, executive officer with the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.

Logging or mechanically thinning the forest come with their own complications.

Machinery can’t traverse steep inclines and roadless areas. Smaller trees aren’t valuable enough to turn into lumber, and there aren’t enough biomass facilities close enough to make transporting the material economically feasible. The few lumber mills that do exist are currently running at capacity. Branham says megafires fires like the Rim Fire have actually made that problem worse.

“We’re chasing this problem right now,” says Branham. “The amount of black logs that are going to fill up the mills this year…which means we won’t be doing as much work in the green forest where we need to catch up with the thinning. It seems like we’re in a vicious cycle right now.”

Compounding the problem are homes and subdivisions built within or right next to forests. As a result, fire agencies will always need to suppress fires.

“We know under extreme conditions like this year wildland fire is burning in ways that are much more intense than in years past,” says Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire, which is responsible for protecting 31 million acres of private land. “We need to ensure that communities are doing more than just what’s required by law because that’s really what it’s going to take,” he says.

Pimlott says that means building safer homes, creating fuel breaks and being more aggressive in establishing defensible space.

In Yosemite’s Aspen Valley, Malcolm North with the U.S. Forest Service walks down a road and points to a huge patch of dying trees that were severely burned by the Rim Fire. On the other side of the road, trees are fire-scarred but very much alive with green canopies. Prescribed burning slowed the Rim Fire’s destruction here once the weather calmed.

“All these fires are basically the result of decisions that we’ve made,” says North. “They’re not acts of God. All these things are our responsibility. We’ve made decisions that have created these kinds of fuel conditions and this kind of fire effect on the forest."

Experts are optimistic that forests in California can be restored. They say more money is needed to increase the pace and scale of thinning and prescribed burning.

They say natural wildfires should be allowed to burn in areas where there aren’t homes. Californians would also have to learn to live with fire and the smoke that comes with it. Otherwise we can expect a future where megafires like the Rim Fire become the norm.

Copyright 2014 Capital Public Radio