It’s been a while since I posted about the synthesis report Fire in Oregon’s Forests, but I found some things I jotted down, and these ideas have been rattling around in my head along with things I’ve picked up through work.
My notes seemed particularly relevant now that I am out of the West Cascade Douglas-fir zone and in the mixed conifer and hardwood of Northern California — where fire is a major concern for the forest. Add to that the pinch of nostalgia that comes from rooming with a first-year firefighter, and out comes this post.
Early on, this synthesis report discusses dire things, such as the disappearance of most open forests with low-intensity fire regimes, and a shift toward higher intensity fire regimes in general. Since I’ve mentioned fire regimes, I’ll explain. When a low-intensity fire comes into a forest, it causes low mortality in small patches, and tends to kill only those trees that are already dying due to disease, insects or old age. This regime involves short return intervals, which means fire comes often and consumes fuel so things never get out of hand (fuel being a limiting factor in fire spread). Thick bark is an adaptation that allows mature trees to remain relatively unharmed by this sort of fire. You can probably already see why fire is very beneficial in this scenario.
On the other hand, high-severity fires have stand-replacing mortality, which is exactly what it sounds like. When these fires are native, they are infrequent and weather driven (by lightning and wind). This is the sort of fire that restarts the successional cycle in cool, high altitude forests. Cone serotiny is maximized in this regime because this adaptation allows life to spring directly from individual mortality – an adaptation for the species as a whole. Mixed-severity regimes incorporate both types. The return interval, intensity and size of burned patches are intermediate.
High-severity fire may not even sound that bad, but it can produce a cascade of problems. High mortality can lead to beetle infestation that can even spread to healthy trees, while insects can vector stains and other rots, and virulent infections can completely alter the course of succession. High temperature burns can create hydrophobic layers of soil which increase runoff and dump sediment into rivers, which can ruin salmonid habitat. It can alter stand structure and the character of dead wood, thereby pushing out birds and wildlife that need certain types of cover. These are clearly worst-case scenarios, but they are all quite possible and all happening somewhere as we speak.
Even those with a casual interest in wildland fire will likely know that more than a century of aggressive fire suppression have left most forests with so much fuel that fires are more commonly high-intensity or even catastrophic. I’ve heard this so often that typing it almost makes me tired. But don’t let that comment imply that it isn’t one of the most serious problems facing most foresters; so far I haven’t done a thing on the Shasta-Trinity NF that doesn’t relate to fuels reduction.
The report also includes a recollection of how the 10-year average for acres burned by wildfire had already been reached in the 2002 fire season. This happened to be my first season as a wildland firefighter, and it certainly skewed my expectations for all subsequent seasons. This was the year of the Rodeo-Chediski, Hayman, Tiller and Biscuit fires, all of which burned a combined 1,168,232 acres; I got a front-row view of all these fires (except the first), and fought several other fires across New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Turns out it’s not typical to go that many places in a season!
Part of the reason this happens is that fire is a natural way of cleaning out debris, and too much suppression makes a forest like a messy closet full of things that lean against one another and drop litter all over the ground. This gives fire any number of avenues to travel up and down the length of trees, burning into roots and crowns and allowing the flames to travel further than they could under normal circumstances.
In a properly managed Ponderosa pine forest, the spacing is so wide that trees don’t even touch, which will put a damper on a fire pretty quickly; it also means that fire is free to clean out the cobwebs without posing a serious threat to a nearby rural community, for example.
Which leads me to two things. First, I’m guessing you can see how a public perception of wildfire might play a large part in this problem. And second, though perhaps not so obvious, a lot of destruction could be avoided if foresters were free to actually manage the forest.
As far as perceptions go, it’s easy to think of fire as something negative that threatens homes and scars the landscape. In particular, most people think fire is always bad and old growth forests are always good. These two intersect in terrible ways. Perception also makes it difficult for foresters to manage old growth at all, by which I mean things like thinning and fuels treatments that would do a lot to save these mature stands from fire. Instead, management of any sort is frowned upon, in this type of stand so wildfire ends up being the biggest threat to old growth forests.
However, fire’s importance to forest health cannot be overstated. Especially in dry forests, native fire is critical for clearing out fuels naturally, manipulating succession and clearing room for understory vegetation. It seems crazy, but allowing some fires to burn is a good thing, and the more we put out every single fire, the more dangerous it is to let any fire burn naturally because of fuel accumulation. Historically, more than 800,000 acres burned annually in mostly low-severity regimes according to the report. This is a huge number compared to today, where a big season like 1987 may burn only 150,000 acres, but with a much higher proportion of high-severity, stand replacing fire. It would help a lot if we could all get used to fire.
Since we’re already in a tough spot with this issue, it’s more important than ever for foresters to manage the woods. The timber-centric view is that things shouldn’t interfere with management objectives, which means that fuels reduction should be a part of growing timber. With private companies, this is typically the case because they want to protect their investment. The real problem is managing state and federal lands.
Public input is a necessary part of managing public lands, of course. It would just help if the public understood the role of fire in forests. So much of it boils down to the type of visuals people expect and an understanding that something can look different and still be healthy. Likely more productive, too! I feel like this issue is on the radar for a lot of people, but having a general feel for people in Oregon doesn’t provide a fair representation of the American public in general. All I know is that red tape and lawsuits prevent most adaptive management of public lands – especially those held by the USFS.
Once upon a time I think it was beneficial for land managers and environmental groups to be at odds because both sides needed the temperance and perspective. Now it seems that many non-profits have discovered ways to turn court time into continued financial viability. Some of these same groups are champions of important issues on one hand, but I have an increasingly hard time respecting that when the other hand is a deaf fist pounding on the table demanding a stop to critical management projects. I hear older foresters in the USFS talking about how proud they are when a timber sale finally goes through that they started 30 years prior. This is no way to manage trees.
Plants have their own schedules and they don’t wait for us to finish up in court. They keep on growing past the point of response to treatments that come too late, and they don’t care who’s arguing for which side. I’ve seen firsthand what happens when management is impeded and a fire comes through to burn the good with the bad; hopeful Trinity County politicians drive wealthy donors through nuke zones and tell them that the Forest Service is wholly responsible for the devastation. Nevermind the quick response. In the end, I suppose we are the ones holding the bag, but if you’ll pardon me – it’s bullshit.
And as a fledgling forester, I really don’t know what my role is or should be with regard to public opinion, or the maze one has to run through in order to manage the forest. I work with three other people to manage all the silvicultural concerns on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Look at a map of the forest and think about that. Three people.
If this sounds anything like a rant, you have my apologies.
From my perspective, there simply seems to be a wall between foresters and responsible management of public lands (yes, that includes timber harvesting and plenty of it). The harder it becomes, the less anyone can afford to care, and the smaller the budgets and staff will get.
Then who will manage the forests?